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State v. Walls

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Nashville

November 9, 2017

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
SUSAN JO WALLS

          Session February 8, 2017

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Criminal Appeals Circuit Court for Bedford County No. 17626 Forest A. Durard, Jr., Circuit Judge.

         We granted this appeal by the State of Tennessee to consider whether the trial court erred by allowing the jury in this case to deliberate late into the night and early morning on the last day of trial before convicting the defendant of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit first degree murder. The Court of Criminal Appeals granted the defendant relief on this issue, reasoning that absent a showing of unusual circumstances, late-night trial proceedings should be avoided and that such circumstances were not presented in this case. We accepted this appeal to examine this issue and clarify the applicable standard of review on appeal. Following our review, we conclude that the Court of Criminal Appeals erred in concluding that the trial court's conducting late-night trial proceedings requires reversal of the defendant's convictions. Accordingly, the Court of Criminal Appeals is reversed and the judgments of the trial court are affirmed.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals Reversed

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Andrew C. Coulam, Assistant Attorney General; Robert J. Carter, District Attorney General; and Richard A. Cawley and Michael D. Randles, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellant, State of Tennessee.

          Christopher P. Westmoreland, Shelbyville, Tennessee, for the defendant, Susan Jo Walls.

          Roger A. Page, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., Cornelia A. Clark, and Holly Kirby, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          ROGER A. PAGE, JUSTICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         The trial of this matter began on Monday, May 5, 2014. The trial continued through the week until Thursday afternoon, May 8. After closing arguments, the trial court stood in recess for approximately two hours when the defendant suffered a medical emergency. When the proceedings resumed, the trial court instructed the jury around 6:30 p.m., and the jury retired to deliberate. As detailed below, multiple interactions occurred among the trial judge, the attorneys, and the jury during this time. The jury returned a verdict at 1:05 a.m. the following morning. The Court of Criminal Appeals granted the defendant relief on the issue of late-night court proceedings, State v. Walls, No. M2014-01972-CCA-R3-CD, 2016 WL 1409836, at *13-14 (Tenn. Crim. App. Apr. 7, 2016), perm. app. granted (Tenn. Aug. 18, 2016), and the State filed a Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 11 application for permission to appeal, arguing that the Court of Criminal Appeals erred in its ruling. We granted the application to consider whether, inter alia, the trial court erred in permitting the jury to deliberate into the late night and early morning hours.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On August 8, 2012, Bedford County Sheriff's Deputy Tim Fox responded to a report of a theft on Enon Church Road in Bedford County. Upon his arrival, he encountered the defendant, Susan Walls, and her daughter Dawn Walls standing at the mailbox. There, he learned that the victim, Larry Walls, Sr., was inside the residence, deceased. Deputy Fox performed a cursory check of the residence and observed the victim on the floor of a bedroom. He described the scene as "pretty gruesome." Blood was on the walls, the floor, and the furniture around the victim.

         Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ("TBI") Special Agent Caleb Utterback also responded to the scene in Bedford County pursuant to a request from the Bedford County District Attorney for the TBI to handle the investigation. Based upon his experience, he thought that the crime scene appeared "staged." Special Agent Utterback listened to the recording of the 9-1-1 call in his vehicle. The defendant had placed the call, but Dawn[1]had to finish the call because the dispatcher could not understand the defendant. He agreed that the recording struck him as "odd." The call had been dispatched as a theft; neither the defendant nor Dawn conveyed any information about a deceased person at the residence. Also, Dawn gave her alibi for the day to the dispatcher, which presented a "huge red flag" to Special Agent Utterback.

         During the TBI's investigation, they discovered that the victim's death had been the result of a murder-for-hire. Several witnesses, including Dawn, her sisters Aelisa Stacy and Melissa Walls, her brother Larry Walls, Jr., and others, described the victim as having been an "evil man" who had been extremely physically abusive to both the defendant and their children and sexually abusive to Dawn. Over the years, many of the victim's family members had commented offhandedly that they wished he were dead but never to the point of plotting his death.

         During Memorial Day Weekend 2012, the victim and the defendant traveled to Antioch, a suburb of Nashville, to spend the night at Dawn's apartment. Dawn shared the apartment with her boyfriend, Derrick McClain; her roommate, Chrissy Twilley; and Ms. Twilley's boyfriend, Jason Starrick. During the weekend, Dawn, the defendant, and Mr. Starrick discussed how much money killing the victim would cost and various methods that could be employed.

         In mid-July, the defendant visited her daughter Aelisa at the residence of Aelisa's boyfriend, Joseph Williams. The defendant had puffy eyes as though she had been crying, and it appeared to Mr. Williams that someone had struck her. The defendant told Mr. Williams that the victim had hit her, that "she was tired of it, " and that it "was the last time he was ever going to hit her." The defendant remarked that "she had it taken care of and that she had some guys that was [sic] going to come down and slit his throat."

         Approximately one week later, Dawn spoke with Mr. Starrick again and discussed his "tak[ing] care of [the victim]" for $400. [2] The defendant acquiesced and told Dawn that she would pay half of the sum. A plan was formulated for Dawn and the defendant to take Aelisa and her four children to a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant to provide an opportunity for Mr. Starrick to kill the victim at his home. The plan was discussed five or six times before it was executed.

         On the night before the murder, August 7, 2012, several people were present at the home of the victim and the defendant. Dawn and the defendant had a discussion about why everyone was there. They said that the murder would occur the following day, August 8. At some point, Dawn informed Mr. Starrick that the back door of the residence was always unlocked. Dawn indicated that she wanted to take Aelisa's son to Chuck E. Cheese's because the school year would begin soon. That night, Dawn, Aelisa, Ms. Twilley, Mr. Starrick, Sean Gerheardt, and Aelisa's four children drove in two cars to Dawn's apartment in Antioch to spend the night. Everyone except Mr. Gerheardt spent the night there. Dawn paid Mr. Starrick $70 in cash and also provided him with a debit card and personal identification number so that he could purchase the necessary items to carry out the murder. The defendant did not contribute any money to Mr. Starrick.

         The following morning, Mr. Gerheardt returned to the apartment, and he and Mr. Starrick left the apartment around 6:15 a.m. They used Dawn's debit card that morning at a Mapco gas station and at Walmart, where they purchased ammonia and two sets of rubber gloves. The defendant arrived at Dawn's apartment around 10:00 a.m. Mr. Gerheardt and Mr. Starrick returned thereafter; they were wearing black clothes, and Mr. Gerheardt had some blood on him. Mr. Starrick removed a long-sleeve shirt that was wet. When the two men entered the apartment, Ms. Twilley observed "tissue or matter" on the side of Mr. Starrick's face and a bloody fingerprint on Mr. Gerheardt. They entered a bathroom, cleaned up, and exited with a plastic garbage bag. Mr. Starrick returned Dawn's debit card, and she drove to Mapco to obtain money from the teller machine to spend at Chuck E. Cheese's. When she returned from Mapco, Mr. Gerheardt and Mr. Starrick were in the parking lot placing a black trash bag into Mr. Starrick's truck. They told Dawn that "it was done." Later that day, the defendant, Dawn, Aelisa, and the children drove to Shelbyville.

         When they arrived in Shelbyville, Dawn and the defendant took Aelisa and her children to Melissa's house. They had planned this in advance because the defendant did not want Aelisa and her children to see the victim or the crime scene. Dawn and the defendant went to get ice cream for all of the children from the defendant's house. When their trip took longer than expected, Aelisa called to see why they were delayed. The defendant told Aelisa what had happened to the victim.

         Although the defendant and Dawn initially gave statements in which they disclaimed any involvement, they both subsequently provided statements in which they accepted responsibility and explained the events leading up to and surrounding the victim's murder. In addition to the confessions, the State's evidence at trial included forensic evidence, which matched the victim's blood with blood found on Mr. Starrick's long-sleeve shirt that was recovered from the apartment and with blood found on the belt Mr. Starrick was wearing when he was arrested. The medical examiner opined that the victim died by "multiple modality, " any of which were potentially fatal and all of which contributed to his death: blunt force trauma to the head, and stab wounds to the heart, lung, and liver. Jason Starrick and Sean Gerheardt were located, with the assistance of Ms. Twilley, and arrested; the defendant and Dawn were arrested and charged with criminal responsibility for the first-degree premeditated murder of the victim and conspiring with each other, Mr. Starrick, and Mr. Gerheardt to commit said murder. The defendant was found guilty and was sentenced to concurrent terms of life in prison and twenty-one years, respectively.

         The defendant appealed her conviction and sentence on several grounds. Walls, 2016 WL 1409836, at *1. In the Court of Criminal Appeals, the defendant argued, inter alia, that the evidence was insufficient to support her convictions, that the trial court erred by allowing the jury to deliberate late into the night, and that the trial court erred in several other rulings. Id. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the defendant's convictions based on the late-night jury deliberations but affirmed the convictions on all other grounds. Id.

         In this Court, the State filed a Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 11 application for permission to appeal, arguing that the intermediate appellate court erred in reversing the defendant's convictions based on the jury's late-night deliberations. We granted the application to consider whether "a trial court's decision to extend jury-trial proceedings into the late-night hours [is] reviewed for abuse of discretion or . . . de novo without a presumption of correctness" and whether "[a]bsent evidence of attorney or juror fatigue, . . . the trial court violate[s] the defendant's constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial by permitting the jury to continue its deliberations late into the night." To decide this issue, we must first consider whether the defendant properly preserved the issue in the absence of a definitive ruling by the trial court and a failure to renew the motion during the course of the late night proceedings.

         III. ANALYSIS

         This matter requires us to review the proceedings that were conducted in the trial court contemporaneously with the late-night proceedings as well as what transpired during the hearing on the motion for a new trial.

         At 4:04 p.m. on May 8, 2014, the defendant began experiencing health problems. A paramedic was summoned, and he indicated that the defendant's blood pressure was 210/120, which he described as "[v]ery high, stroke high." A deputy suggested that they should transport the defendant to a hospital, and the paramedic agreed. After the defendant's removal from the courtroom, the trial court mentioned instructing the jury in her absence, and defense counsel thereupon objected to "any further action without [his] client here." The State suggested that they "just wait a little while and see if her blood pressure comes back down and then proceed." Thereafter, the following conversation occurred on the record:

DEFENSE COUNSEL: I think . . . the General may be correct there. And based on my experience, I've never been in the hospital where it took twenty or thirty minutes for a turn around, especially not when your blood pressure is that high. They always want to make sure that whatever they've administered that you don't drop too low and that kind of thing. So if it's going to be two hours, which sounds like a long time, two hours. Especially, then to come back in after two hours, if she's even here, we're going to have another thirty, forty minutes based on what we expect the charge to be and then they're going to start deliberating at seven o'clock at night?
THE COURT: Yeah, it's going to take me thirty, forty-five minutes to read this charge. DEFENSE COUNSEL: It sounds to me, based on where we are, is that the best thing to do would be to adjourn until tomorrow and start fresh in the morning. I don't have a problem dismissing the juror that needs to go to Knoxville. I have no problem at all.

         No further discussion ensued. The defendant returned from the hospital, and with her present, the trial court instructed the jury beginning at 6:30 p.m. The jury began deliberating at 7:13 p.m. The jury sent a question to the trial court at 10:41 p.m. The trial court and attorneys were still discussing the appropriate answer when the jury sent word that they were hungry and wanted something to eat. The clerk ordered pizza for the jury, and at 11:13 p.m., the trial court sent the ...


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