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Echols v. Ford

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

July 19, 2019

TRAVIS K. ECHOLS, Petitioner,
TAMMY FORD, Warden, Respondent.

          GUYTON, J.


          REEVES, J.

         Petitioner Travis Echols, a Tennessee inmate proceeding pro se, has filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging his Tennessee conviction for first-degree felony murder and resulting life sentence. Having considered the submissions of the parties, the State-court record, and the law applicable to Echols' claims, the Court finds that the petition should be denied.


         The Tennessee Supreme Court summarized the facts of this case as follows:

On June 18, 2005, the Knoxville Police Department responded to a report of a shooting incident at parking lot C of the Townview Towers apartment complex in Knoxville. The police found the victim, later identified as Robert Steely, a sixty-seven-year-old antique car dealer, slumped over in the driver's seat of a restored red and white 1958 Buick. The victim's wallet was missing, and he had bullet wounds in the chest. He later died at the University of Tennessee Hospital. The keys to the Buick were in the ignition, but the engine was off[, ] and the windows were down. Police discovered a loaded .38 Titan Tiger (“.38 Special”) revolver underneath the victim's left arm. The weapon contained five live rounds and one spent round. Two .22 caliber cartridge cases were located on the pavement near the Buick. Police found a .22 caliber bullet behind the passenger door panel of the Buick and a .38 caliber bullet, later determined to have been fired from the victim's gun, lodged in a vehicle nearby.
Investigator Steve Still of the Knoxville Police Department interviewed several individuals at the crime scene who had heard gunshots, but none had witnessed the shooting. The police also found the victim's fingerprints on the outside of the Buick, and those of Rebecca Ann Carpenter on the passenger side window frame and on a soft drink can. Testing of the three .22 caliber bullets, two of which were recovered from the victim's chest, produced inconclusive results. Although an expert was unable to determine whether they were fired from the same gun, the markings indicated that the bullets could have been fired from either a pistol, a semi-automatic revolver, or a rifle. Testing by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Crime Laboratory confirmed that the victim could have fired a weapon “or was near a gun when it fired.”
Early in the investigation, Investigator Still received information from an unnamed source that Amanda Harshaw, a resident in unit D218 at the apartment complex, had permitted a black male named “Travis, ” who had a missing front tooth, to use her telephone shortly after the shooting took place. When questioned, Ms. Harshaw confirmed that she had overheard Travis say that he had shot someone in parking lot C who had a lot of money in his possession. Eight days after the shooting, Investigator Still received information from the same unnamed person that “Travis” had returned to Ms. Harshaw's apartment. Sergeant Tony Willis and several other officers were dispatched to the apartment. According to Sergeant Willis, a “female, ” presumably Ms. Harshaw, answered the door and gave him permission to search. Travis Kinte Echols (“the Defendant”), who matched the description Ms. Harshaw had given Investigator Still, was found in the bathroom of the apartment. Officers handcuffed the Defendant, who identified himself as Travis Brabson, and took him into custody. Before the Defendant was questioned, Sergeant Willis learned that there was an outstanding warrant for a “Travis Brabson” for failure to appear in court.
Investigator Still advised the Defendant of his Miranda rights and conducted a videotaped interview. After acknowledging that he knew the victim had fired his weapon, Investigator Still informed the Defendant that his statement could make a difference between a possible life sentence and some other less onerous form of punishment. Eventually, the Defendant admitted shooting the victim, but asserted that he had acted in self-defense. He explained that after the shooting he had thrown the gun in a quarry located in Halls. He showed Investigator Still where he claimed to have disposed of the weapon, but it was never found. Afterward, the Defendant was returned to the police station, the interview was concluded, he was charged, and placed in jail.
Suppression Hearing
After being indicted for felony murder during the perpetration of a robbery, the Defendant moved to suppress the statement he had made to law enforcement officers, claiming that the statement was the product of an unlawful detention and arrest. The trial judge at that time, Kenneth F. Irvine, Jr., denied the motion. When Judge Irvine was succeeded in office by Judge Bobby R. McGee, the Defendant renewed the motion to suppress.
At the second suppression hearing, Investigator Still testified that during the week after the shooting, he discovered an individual who claimed to have learned that a man named “Travis” had admitted shooting somebody in lot C in a telephone call made from apartment D218 of Townview Towers. At that time, the police were not investigating any other shootings in lot C. Investigator Still interviewed Ms. Harshaw, the occupant of the apartment, and she confirmed that at some point after the shooting she had allowed a black male named “Travis, ” who was missing a front tooth, to use her telephone and that she had overheard him say he had shot someone in lot C. Ms. Harshaw assured Investigator Still that she would contact him if “Travis” showed up at her apartment again. On the night of June 26, 2005, the same individual who had referred Investigator Still to Ms. Harshaw called him while he was off duty to report that “Travis” was at apartment D218. Investigator Still then contacted Sergeant Tony Willis and asked him to go to Ms. Harshaw's apartment. A short while later, after the Defendant was taken into custody and transported to the jail, Investigator Still advised him of his rights and obtained a signed waiver before conducting an interview. When the Defendant indicated that he had a prior arrest in Anderson County, officials obtained his social security number and found several arrest records in the name of Travis Echols.
Sergeant Willis testified at the hearing that on June 26, 2005, he was on patrol duty when he received information from Investigator Still that the primary suspect in the lot C homicide was in apartment D218 at Townview Towers. Investigator Still described the suspect as an African-American male named “Travis” who was missing a front tooth. When Sergeant Willis and other officers arrived at the apartment, they were given permission by “a white female” to conduct a search. Sergeant Willis described her as “extremely nervous.” Sergeant Willis found no one in the kitchen, living room, or the bedroom, but the bathroom door was closed. He directed the Defendant, who was inside, to come out. When the Defendant did so, he was ordered to the floor and handcuffed. The Defendant matched the description provided by Investigator Still and identified himself as Travis Brabson. While he was being taken to jail, which was only minutes away, Sergeant Willis learned that there was an outstanding arrest warrant for failure to appear on a misdemeanor drug citation in the name of Travis Brabson.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge McGee denied the motion to suppress, holding that the officer “had reasonable suspicion to justify a brief detention” and, for safety purposes, “to cuff him and take him into custody.” While observing that the probable cause necessary to justify an arrest warrant was “pretty close, ” Judge McGee held that even if the police had insufficient information, the arrest was valid because the police soon learned of the warrant for the Defendant's arrest for his failure to appear in another case. Judge McGee also ruled that the Defendant's statement was not the product of coercion or intimidation.
At trial, the victim's daughter, Darlene Thomas, portrayed her father as an army veteran and a hard-working, family man who cared for his disabled wife for some twenty-one years prior to her death. She testified that the victim bought and restored antique cars as a hobby. She further testified that he always carried a wallet and that “[h]e might have seven or eight thousand dollars on him at one time.” She stated that he typically had a handgun either in his pocket or under the front seat of his car, even though he did not have a permit. Ms. Thomas also stated that the victim had a girlfriend whom she had never met.
George Hammontree testified that on the date of the murder he had attended a birthday party at Townview Towers. He recalled that when he returned to his car for cigarettes, he dropped them to the floorboard and was reaching down to retrieve them when someone yelled, “Give it up[, g]ive it up.” He then saw two black males and one white female next to a red and white car. He testified that one of the males, who had “dreadlocks, ” pointed a rifle at an older man who was seated in the vehicle with his hands in the air. When Hammontree saw the rifle, he moved to the floor of his van and then heard “pat, pat, pat, boom”-the sounds of “three small [shots] and then one big one.” Hammontree, who claimed to be familiar with weapons, testified that the first three shots were fired from a .22 caliber automatic rifle whereas the final shot had come from a larger caliber gun. When he heard no more gunshots, Hammontree looked up and saw the female running with so much effort that she lost her tennis shoes. He recalled that the two males ran down a bank. Hammontree claimed that he was so scared by the shooting, he returned to the party and chose not to make a statement to police officers who later arrived at the scene.
One or two weeks later, Hammontree contacted Investigator Still and identified the Defendant from a photographic lineup as the individual who had shot the victim. At trial, Hammontree again identified the Defendant as the assailant, claiming “a hundred percent” certainty. On cross-examination, however, Hammontree acknowledged that during the Defendant's preliminary hearing, he had identified another individual as the person who fired the shots. He explained, however, that “[t]hey both look alike[, ] ... both had their hair poofed out” and that he had “just [made] a mistake” at the hearing as a result of his nervousness. Hammontree also admitted that he had a criminal record, including convictions for aggravated burglary, theft, and criminal impersonation. While acknowledging that forgery and theft charges were pending against him, he claimed that he was not promised anything by the State in return for his testimony against the Defendant.
Rebecca Ann Carpenter, who sometimes worked as a prostitute and admitted to having a drug problem, testified that she had gone to Townview Towers to purchase drugs on the morning of the shooting. She stated that later that day, in a different part of town, she approached the victim because he had motioned for her to come to his car. She claimed that even though the victim had mistaken her for someone else, she spoke to the victim and then asked for a ride in his restored car. The victim agreed to drive her home and, according to Ms. Carpenter, offered to take her to his residence for drinks. She denied that they ever discussed sex. When she asked for “pot, ” the victim drove her to Townview Towers and removed eighteen dollars from his wallet, which, she said, contained “[l]ots of money.” Upon arriving at the apartment complex, Ms. Carpenter walked down the steps into a corridor and recognized the Defendant as the person who had sold her crack cocaine earlier that morning. When Ms. Carpenter returned to the victim's car to ask for more money, she saw the Defendant point a silver and black, long-barrel weapon at the victim. Ms. Carpenter described the Defendant as a black male, with “long hair, ” “[k]ind of a fro like, ” and “[k]ind of frizzy looking, ” and possibly having a mustache. She claimed that she did not hear the Defendant say “give it up” and did not remember seeing the victim put his hands up in the air. She testified that when she heard the first gunshot ...

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