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State v. Thomas

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

August 15, 2019


          Session February 26, 2019

          Appeal from the Criminal Court for Knox County No. 108788 Steven W. Sword, Judge.

         The Defendant, Karen Sarah Thomas, alias, appeals her jury convictions for aggravated stalking. In this direct appeal, the Defendant alleges that the evidence was insufficient to support her convictions and that the trial court erred when it allowed the State to introduce evidence of an out-of-courtroom event that took place during the trial. Following our review of the record and the applicable authorities, we affirm the judgments of the trial court.

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

          Mark E. Stephens, District Public Defender, and Jonathan Harwell, Assistant District Public Defender (on appeal); and Charles G. Currier (at trial), Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Karen Sarah Thomas, alias.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Benjamin A. Ball, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Charme P. Allen, District Attorney General; and Willie R. Lane and Randall J. Kilby, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which James Curwood Witt, Jr., and Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., JJ., joined.


          D. KELLY THOMAS, JR., JUDGE.


         This case involves an underlying feud between two families-the Defendant's and the victim's. On August 17, 2016, a Knox County grand jury charged the Defendant with alternative counts of aggravated stalking. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-315. The Defendant was alleged to have "unlawfully and intentionally stalk[ed]" the victim, A.D., [1] between February 18, 2016 and May 2, 2016. Count 1 charged that the Defendant was prohibited from making contact with the victim by an order of protection and that the Defendant knowingly violated the order. Count 2 charged that the victim was less than eighteen years of age at the time while the Defendant was at least five years older than the victim. The Defendant proceeded to a jury trial in February 2017.

         The victim testified that she grew up in Florida and moved to Knoxville with her mother, father, and two brothers in July 2015 when she was fourteen years old. They moved into the Defendant's home and resided with the Defendant and her family. The families had previously interacted with each other when both families lived in Florida. Once in Knoxville, the victim and the Defendant's teenage daughter both attended West Valley Middle School. When the two families began to quarrel, the victim and her family moved out in October 2015.

         In late 2015, the Defendant had exchanged angry text messages with the victim's mother, including messages discussing the victim. The Defendant sent the following text message to the victim's mother:

If I wanted to harass you, think of all the ways, with the skills and technology that I have available to me, that I could. Then consider the fact that, by your own admission, your daughter cannot be trusted and creates drama and is slick enough to fool a psychiatrist. Then consider that she's not f--king with me. She's f--king with my children. Then realize I have done nothing to mess with you. If I want to f--k your life, I would walk away from the space forward, your non intention to pay whole Rob so that they could go after you and garnish your husband's wages.

         The Defendant sent another message to the victim's mother stating, "In case I haven't made it clear enough, everyone in my family f--king hates your daughter and thinks she's a b---h and a w--re, and so do all of [my daughter's] friends."

The Defendant further said to the victim's mother, via text message,
F--k everyone and everything, and then all the s--t is f--king up my kids' Thanksgiving and f--king up the first day I've had to spend with them in forever. So I either need you to come over here like in five minutes, or I'm going to go over there and tak[e] a turn ruining your family's Thanksgiving.

         The Defendant texted, "We will have somebody f--k with [the victim's brother] at school all day long and then try to break up every friendship he has." The Defendant continued that, if she did not "get enough satisfaction from that," she would accuse the victim's other male family members of raping the Defendant's daughter and have someone "start physically hurting" the victim's brother.

         There was a short but direct confrontation between the Defendant and the victim before the order of protection went into effect, and the confrontation was recorded. On this occasion, the victim was accompanied by a friend, and the Defendant was "right next to" the victim when the conflict occurred. The recording captured the Defendant saying to the victim, "You know, I'm not allowed to talk to lying w--res, but I can talk about lying w--res that accuse people of raping them." She also said, "Oh, of course I'm talking about you. You should know." Furthermore, the Defendant remarked, "Do your friends know what you say about them behind their backs?" to which the victim responded, "I'm sure they do. Thank you." The recording was played for the jury.

         The victim indicated that there were "other instances" during this time that the Defendant called her names. When asked if the Defendant made "other threatening statements" to the victim, the victim replied, "She told me that she would make my life a living hell, and I told her that she already did, and she said she could do worse."

         As a result, the victim's mother obtained an order of protection against the Defendant on behalf of the victim. The February 18, 2016 order of protection was entered as an exhibit at trial. The victim was listed as the "Petitioner/Plaintiff," and it was noted that the order was sought by the victim's mother for the "minor plaintiff." The order of protection, which indicated that it was issued "after proof," forbid the Defendant from "abus[ing] or threaten[ing] to abuse Petitioner or Petitioner's minor children" and from "stalk[ing] or threaten[ing] to stalk Petitioner or Petitioner's minor children." The order also instructed the Defendant not to "come about the Petitioner (including coming by or to a shared residence) for any purpose" and not to "contact Petitioner and Petitioner's children, either directly or indirectly, by phone, email messages, text messages, mail or any type of communication or contact." It also required the Defendant to stay away from the Petitioner's home and workplace and the "children's home and workplace." The portion of the order for "particularized findings of fact that the [Defendant] committed the following acts" was left blank. The order was placed into effect until February 17, 2017. Many of the additional details not recounted above that ultimately led to this order of protection were excluded by the trial court because the trial court did not want the trial turning into the "Jerry Springer Show."

         The victim testified that, following entry of the protection order, her mother would pick her up when she got out of school at 3:30 p.m. The victim stated that her mother parked "by the sidewalk, right next to the entrance of" the school. The victim had to walk up a hill to reach her mother, and it was customary for the children to walk with their friends.

         When the victim was asked to describe "the next time" she saw the Defendant after the protection order was entered, the victim replied, "[S]he was parked right in front of my mom." According to the victim, the Defendant "would purposely park right in front of [her] mom, and [she] would have to walk past her in order to get to [her] mom's car." The victim said that she could see the Defendant looking at her from inside the car, and the Defendant "gave [her] dirty looks." The victim described several instances where this occurred and maintained that the Defendant's actions made her feel "terrified." The victim subsequently explained that this happened almost "every day" and that she was afraid and "very uncomfortable" every time she had to walk past the Defendant.

         The victim recounted a specific incident that took place on February 26, 2016. According to the victim, after she got into the car with her mother that day and they were headed home, the Defendant "started driving behind [them], and she would speed up." The victim claimed that there was another route for the Defendant to take.

         The victim also described an April 5, 2016 incident that occurred following her release from Peninsula psychiatric hospital. Although the victim was not at school that day, the victim went to the pick-up area "to surprise [her] best friend" that she had just been released. When her best friend "got up the hill[, ]" the victim got out of her car to give her friend a hug. The victim testified that, as she "looked back," she saw the Defendant with her friend "Tracy" "leaning against Tracy's red van looking at [her]." At that time, the victim and her friend took a picture of the Defendant's leaning on the van "staring" at the victim. The victim described the Defendant's look in the photograph: "I know her looks, and the look that she was giving me made me feel uncomfortable." The victim acknowledged that she was about two-car lengths from the Defendant when this took place and that she was "walking away" from the Defendant at the time the picture was taken.

         The victim relayed that, on March 23, 2016, the Defendant took a picture of her and that she had seen that picture. The Defendant's behavior caused her to feel afraid.

         On April 8, 2016, the victim's mother took a video reflecting that the Defendant "got out of her car at the school and was walking toward the hill." The victim testified her mother called her while she was inside the school and "told [her] to hold up because [the Defendant] was walking in [her] direction." The victim indicated that she had seen the recording and that her mother had filed a police report.

         The victim was aware of an April 11, 2016 incident at school that caused her to be afraid. On that occasion, the Defendant "parked in front of the police officer at the school. [The victim's] mother pulled in behind . . . . The officer told [the Defendant] she had to go to another location to pick up her children."

         The victim recalled that she saw the Defendant in her car on April 12, 2016. According to the victim, on that day, the Defendant "parked in a gravel area, and the police officer had to tell her to move, because she was in eyeshot of [the victim]."

         The victim indicated that, every time she encountered the Defendant, she had "a really bad feeling," and she "thought [the Defendant] was just never going to stop until something bad happened." The victim explained, "I was afraid that she wouldn't stop torturing me until . . . I killed myself." The victim relayed that her Peninsula hospital stay lasted "almost a week" and that she was there due to "self-harming" by cutting herself. Although the victim had engaged in this behavior when she lived in Florida, the victim claimed that it had stopped prior to her move to Knoxville. According to the victim, it was the Defendant's behavior that led her to start cutting herself again. The victim indicated that following the April 5, 2016 incident, she "express[ed] [her] fear" to herself "in [her] room." The victim further testified that the Defendant knew about her prior history with self-harming. Moreover, the victim said that she was fearful of the Defendant while the victim was testifying at trial.

         David Claxton, the principal at West Valley Middle School, testified that he spoke with the Defendant's husband in early April 2016. According to Principal Claxton, the Defendant's husband came to his office to talk about "the situation involving" his daughter and the victim. Principal Claxton recalled that "there was an issue of where the parents were picking up the children." Principal Claxton told the Defendant's husband, who was "upset," that he and his wife could park in the staff lot behind the school to pick up their daughter "to avoid any contact" with the victim. He also remembered the Defendant's husband referencing his "medical condition" when requesting this change. Principal Claxton relayed that the staff lot was "at the rear of the school" and was not as far away as where they had been picking up their daughter on the street in front of the school.

         According to Principal Claxton, shortly thereafter, the Defendant and her husband came to his office, and the Defendant asked why her daughter "would need to change her normal pattern." Principal Claxton explained to the Defendant that he "was just trying to help." He believed that the Defendant did not "like the offer" to park in the rear of the school because her daughter liked walking up the hill with her friends to where they get into their cars. He clarified that this was not "an order" to the Defendant.

         Principal Claxton also noted that he had taken other steps to keep the two girls separated while at school. For example, he had arranged to have a class exit through a different hall to prevent the girls from coming into contact with one another.

         Officer Gary Frazier of the Knox County Sheriff's Office testified that, in April 2016, he was working at West Valley Middle School. On April 11, 2016, Officer Frazier initiated a conversation with the Defendant after seeing her park behind the victim's mother. Officer Frazier was aware of the order of protection being in place, so he explained to the Defendant that she could not park there. Officer Frazier advised the Defendant to pick up her daughter behind the school in the area where Principal Claxton had given her permission to park. Officer Frazier indicated that the Defendant's daughter could walk out of the rear entrance of the school and get into the car and that they could then leave using the bus entrance. According to Officer Frazier, the Defendant "was a little upset" by their conversation, and she "had a little attitude" because she "didn't feel like she needed to leave." Officer Frazier described that the Defendant "just sort of sped off." He was unsure where the Defendant went that day.

         The following day, the Defendant returned to the same area and parked in front of Officer Frazier. Officer Frazier then contacted a detective, who after speaking with the judge who issued the order of protection, instructed Officer Frazier to again tell the Defendant that she could not be present there and advise her to park behind the school. Officer Frazier went and spoke with the Defendant. He relayed the judge's instruction to the Defendant to park behind the school, but the Defendant responded that she was not going to interrupt her daughter's routine "for whatever." Officer Frazier warned the Defendant that he would have to arrest her if the victim approached. Officer Frazier saw her "pull down again," but he did not "catch her leaving."

         Thereafter, Officer Frazier executed a warrant for the Defendant's arrest on May 5, 2016. After the Defendant dropped her daughter off at school, Officer Frazier, who was accompanied by another officer, pulled the Defendant over as she was leaving. Both officers approached the Defendant, and Officer Frazier told the Defendant to get out of her car because he had a warrant for her arrest. After a bit of coaxing, the Defendant complied, and he placed her in handcuffs and put her in the back of his police car. Officer Frazier testified that the Defendant seemed to think it was a "joke." According to Officer Frazier, the Defendant complained that she was bored and asked for a book to read. She also asked Officer Frazier to use her phone to take a photograph of her being transferred "to the transportation wagon[.]" Officer Frazier declined both requests.

         Officer Frazier described the school campus and indicated that there were several other areas for the Defendant to park to pick up her daughter instead of at the "top of the hill" where she was parking. Officer Frazier explained that the lot behind the school where the Defendant had been given permission to park was about seventy steps from the back entrance, whereas the top-of-the-hill area was about 500 steps from the front entrance. Officer Frazier confirmed that there was also a crossing guard present during pick-up time.

         Detective Tammy Brummit of the Knox County Sheriff's Office was the lead investigator in this case. She testified that, on December 14, 2015, she began an investigation into the Defendant for stalking allegations and that she remained the lead investigator through the time of the Defendant's arrest on May 5, 2016. During her investigation, Detective Brummit interviewed the Defendant. The Defendant waived her Miranda rights and agreed to provide her side of the story.

         The Defendant provided Detective Brummit with several names during the interview, claiming that those individuals would support her claims about the victim's family. The Defendant insisted, "I have never done anything to this child except for call her a b---h." When Detective Brummit indicated that she had reviewed the recording in which the Defendant called the victim "a w--re," the Defendant replied, "Okay, I might have called her a w--re." The Defendant confirmed that she said to the victim's mother, "You f--cked up my life, I'm going to f--k yours." The Defendant further agreed that she had told the victim's mother that if she wanted to mess up her life, she could do so. The Defendant indicated that, although she listed actions she could take, like disseminating naked pictures of the couple, she did not follow through with any of those. The Defendant claimed that the messages she had sent were all taken out of context and that they had been altered. Also during the interview, the Defendant refused to turn over her cellphone for a search despite being told that the victim's mother had done so.

         While speaking with Detective Brummit, the Defendant asserted that she and her family were the ones that had been victimized. The Defendant claimed that her daughter did not want to be picked up at another location and showed Detective Brummit a text message from her daughter to that effect. The Defendant adamantly believed that the order of protection did not prohibit her from being on school property to pick up her daughter. She asserted that the trial judge that issued the protection order told her that it was not a problem as long as everyone stayed in their cars. She said that, if the ...

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