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Nelson v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

August 12, 2019

TARENCE NELSON
v.
STATE OF TENNESSEE

          Session November 6, 2018

          Appeal from the Criminal Court for Shelby County No. 10-02396 Chris Craft, Judge

         The petitioner, Tarence Nelson, appeals the denial of his post-conviction petition, arguing the post-conviction court erred in finding he received effective assistance of counsel at trial and on appeal. The petitioner argues trial counsel was ineffective for failing to turn over certain firearms to law enforcement for testing, failing to request funds to hire a ballistics expert, and failing to request oral argument on direct appeal. Separately, the petitioner alleges numerous, additional errors of trial counsel amounted to ineffective assistance under the cumulative error doctrine. The petitioner also contends post-conviction counsel was ineffective. Following our review, we affirm the denial of the petition.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Criminal Court Affirmed.

          Vicki M. Carriker, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Tarence Nelson.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Ronald L. Coleman, Assistant Attorney General; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; and Melanie Cox, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          J. Ross Dyer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Kelly Thomas, Jr. and Timothy L. Easter, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          J. ROSS DYER, JUDGE

         Facts and Procedural History

         A. Trial

         The petitioner was convicted of two counts of premeditated murder for which he received two consecutive life sentences. State v. Tarence Nelson, No. W2011-02222-CCA-R3-CD, 2013 WL 12185279 (Tenn. Crim. App. May 24, 2013), no perm. app. filed. This Court affirmed his convictions and sentence on appeal and summarized the facts presented at trial, as follows:

The victim, Tonya Johnson, was 36 years old at the time of her death. She was eight months pregnant with [the petitioner]'s child. Kaye Ingram lived across the street from the victim. She described the victim as a "quiet neighbor" who "kept to herself." On September 25, 2009, Ms. Ingram observed Ms. Johnson arrive home at approximately 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. Ms. Ingram testified that Ms. Johnson left her garage door open, which was unusual because "she never ever leaves her garage door up so [she] assumed that she probably had company coming." At approximately 6:00 p.m., Ms. Ingram went outside to watch her grandchildren ride their bikes on the sidewalk. She saw a black car pull into Ms. Johnson's driveway. She described the driver of the vehicle as a black male, between 5 feet 7 inches and 6 feet in height. He was wearing blue jeans and a white shirt. He entered the house through the garage. Ms. Ingram saw him leave Ms. Johnson's house at approximately 9:30 p.m.
Ms. Ingram and her husband decided to go to Ms. Johnson's house to tell her that her garage door was open. They knocked on her front door, and she did not answer. Ms. Ingram looked through the window beside the front door and saw Ms. Johnson "slumped over her ottoman." She yelled to another neighbor, Dixie Harber, to call 911.
Dixie Harber lived across the street from Ms. Johnson. She and her husband left their home at approximately 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. to eat dinner. She noticed that Ms. Johnson's garage door was open. After they returned home from dinner, she was sitting in her garage when she saw the Ingrams walk across the street and knock on Ms. Johnson's front door. She then heard Ms. Ingram yell at her to call 911.
Justin Grimsley, Ms. Ingram's son-in-law, described the vehicle in Ms. Johnson's driveway as a dark blue or black four-door late model sedan. Mr. Grimsley left Ms. Ingram's house to go to the store at approximately 9:30 p.m., and the car was still in Ms. Johnson's driveway. When he returned 15 minutes later, the car was gone. He walked to Ms. Harber's house to talk to Ms. Harber and her husband, who were sitting in their driveway. When Ms. Ingram yelled to Ms. Harber to call 911, he ran across the street to Ms. Johnson's house. He and the others entered Ms. Johnson's house through the garage door leading into the kitchen. They found Ms. Johnson lying across an ottoman in her living room. They checked for a pulse and did not find one. They rolled her onto her back, and Mr. Grimsley checked for a pulse on Ms. Johnson's neck but did not feel one. He then ran across the street to Ms. Ingram's house to get a respiration mask. He gave the mask to another neighbor on the scene, Steve Starnes, who tried to resuscitate Ms. Johnson while Mr. Grimsley did chest compressions until paramedics arrived. Mr. Grimsley testified that Ms. Johnson appeared to have one gunshot wound in the back of her head and one gunshot wound to her abdomen. He testified that he did not observe any signs of a struggle inside the victim's house.
Deputy James Hogan, of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, responded to the crime scene. He found shell casings near the victim's body. Deputy Hogan searched the victim's house. He testified that there "didn't appear to be anyone else there or anything disturbed even." After the paramedics arrived and left with the victim, he interviewed the neighbors and secured the crime scene.
Paramedic Vicki Jeffers testified that the victim was deceased when she arrived at the scene. She continued CPR on the victim and called for helicopter transportation in order to try and save the life of the victim's unborn child. Ms. Jeffers testified that the victim had wounds to the back of the head, the right chest, and the abdomen.
Detective Jason Valentine, of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, testified that he executed a search warrant for the victim's house. Detective Valentine found a 9 millimeter shell casing near the chaise lounge. He testified that there were no weapons recovered from the victim's home. After the autopsy revealed that the victim had two gunshot wounds and only one projectile was recovered from the victim's body, Detective Valentine returned to the crime scene to search again. Another projectile was recovered from the leg of the chaise lounge.
Sergeant Trini Dean was the case officer in the investigation. Sergeant Dean interviewed witnesses who stated that the victim had arrived home at approximately 6:00 p.m. Witnesses gave a description of a black male who was seen entering the victim's residence "a few minutes" later. Sergeant Dean also interviewed the victim's family members and determined that [the petitioner] matched the description of the subject. Sergeant Dean's investigation revealed that [the petitioner] was visiting a girlfriend named Amanda in Memphis on the date of the murders.
Amanda Hill testified that she and [the petitioner] began dating each other in 2005, and they dated until February, 2007. They remained friends after their romantic relationship ended. On September 25, 2009, [the petitioner] drove from his home in Murfreesboro to Memphis to visit Ms. Hill. [The petitioner] told Ms. Hill that he would leave work at 5:00 p.m., and she expected him to arrive at her house at approximately 9:00 p.m. [The petitioner] arrived at her house at 10:00 p.m. She testified that [the petitioner] was carrying a laptop and a cell phone, and he had an empty gun holster in the back of his waistband. They ate, watched a movie and then went to bed.
[The petitioner] was arrested on September 26, 2009, and transported to the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center. Lieutenant Todd Sparks, of the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office, assisted in obtaining and executing a search warrant for [the petitioner]'s residence in Murfreesboro on September 27, 2009. Lieutenant Sparks found two firearms in [the petitioner]'s kitchen in the "open space on top of the cabinets." One was a Bushmaster AR-15 .223 caliber rifle, and the other was a Taurus .44 Magnum revolver.
Sergeant Chris Owens, of the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department, also assisted in executing the search warrant. Sergeant Owens found "several loose ammunition rounds" inside a clear plastic container in a storage compartment of a boat parked inside [the petitioner]'s garage. Sergeant Owens testified that the container held "several rounds of .40 caliber ammunition inside." He also found a nylon briefcase inside the storage compartment of the boat that contained "several different types of miscellaneous ammunition to include-I don't have a certain-an exact count but there were 12 gauge rounds and some 9 millimeter rounds as well." Sergeant Owens also found "a magazine for a semiautomatic rifle style weapon and a clip or a holster for a handgun."
Detective Nathan Cockman, of the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, also assisted in executing the search warrant for [the petitioner]'s home. A rented black Chevy Impala was beside the boat parked in [the petitioner]'s garage. Detective Cockman found an empty cell phone case with a "flowery" design inside the center console of the vehicle. Detective Cockman also found a rental agreement for the Impala inside the center console. Detective Coleman went to the location from which the car was rented and found [the petitioner]'s Chevy Tahoe. Detective Cockman found a 9 millimeter shell casing and a .40 caliber shell casing inside the center console of the Chevy Tahoe.
Agent Cervinia Braswell, a forensic scientist for the Firearms Identification Unit of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), testified that she examined the 9 millimeter shell casing recovered from the victim's home and the 9 millimeter shell casing recovered from [the petitioner]'s vehicle. Agent Braswell determined that the two shell casings had the same class characteristics, but they had insufficient individual ...

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