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State v. Ponder

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

August 21, 2019


          Assigned on Briefs April 16, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Stewart County No. 2016-CR-85 David D. Wolfe, Judge

         The defendant, Zackary James Earl Ponder, appeals his Stewart County Circuit Court jury convictions of first degree premeditated murder and aggravated assault, claiming that the trial court erred by admitting into evidence three photographs of the victim, by refusing to allow the defendant pretrial access to the criminal history of a State witness, by limiting his cross-examination of the investigating officer, by permitting the prosecutor to express his personal opinion during closing argument, and by failing to address "the fine portion of the defendant's sentence." He also challenges the sufficiency of the evidence for his conviction of first degree murder. Although we conclude that portions of the State's closing argument were improper, we deem the error harmless. We detect clerical error in the judgment for the defendant's conviction of aggravated assault that necessitates the entry of a corrected judgment for that count. Otherwise, the judgments of the trial court are affirmed.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed; Remanded

          Chase T. Smith, Clarksville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Zackary James Earl Ponder.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; David H. Findley, Assistant Attorney General; W. Ray Crouch, Jr., District Attorney General; and Dani Bryson, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          James Curwood Witt, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., and Camille R. McMullen, JJ., joined.



         The Stewart County Grand Jury charged the defendant with first degree premediated murder and aggravated assault related to the March 2016 death of the victim, Seth Michael Allen Brabant.

         Cody Lancaster, who was in the same Army unit as the defendant and the victim, testified that in March 2016, the victim, who was in the process of separating from his wife, lived with Mr. Lancaster. Mr. Lancaster's former fiancée, Jillian Valencia, and Kent Carpeno also lived in the home. On the evening of March 5, 2016, they had a party at the residence, and the defendant attended. The victim "was having a tough night" because he could not reach his estranged wife and, as a result, the victim was "aggressive with everybody." The victim was also drinking heavily. At some point, the victim and Mr. Carpeno began to argue, and, when Mr. Lancaster tried to intervene, the victim struck Mr. Lancaster, "and that's when all hell broke loose." Mr. Lancaster described a melee involving several people with "fists flying." He could not recall how the brawl ended, saying, "I mean as quickly as it started it stopped." He recalled that the defendant, who had not been drinking and who did not participate in the fracas, held Mr. Lancaster down because he did not want Mr. Lancaster to fight the victim.

         After the fight ended, Mr. Lancaster and Ms. Valencia went into Mr. Lancaster's bedroom to talk. Mr. Lancaster said that Ms. Valencia had been struck during the altercation and that he was upset because he had been unable to protect her. Sometime later, the victim got up to go to the restroom, and the defendant said "something about, hey, I'm going to take him, you know, to his wife's." The defendant and the victim then left together with the defendant's "helping [the victim] out the door." Mr. Lancaster said that, as far as he knew, the defendant was taking the victim to visit the victim's estranged wife. The defendant telephoned Mr. Lancaster on the following day "saying that he really wanted to talk to [Mr. Lancaster] about something," but Mr. Lancaster told him that he was too upset about an argument he had had with Ms. Valencia on the previous evening to meet with the defendant.

         Jillian Valencia testified that on March 5, 2016, she arrived home from work at approximately 11:30 p.m. to find "the guys drinking like they always do, liquor and beer." Mr. Lancaster was downstairs with the victim, who was "completely distraught" because his estranged wife had gone on a date with another man. She said that the victim was "cursing, saying he was done. Just belligerent and completely heartbroken." Ms. Valencia said that the victim "was pretty drunk" but that she did not drink alcohol, "[e]specially not with the guys." She attempted to console the victim, and he and Mr. Lancaster eventually went upstairs to do "the whole [m]ilitary drinking thing," which she described as involving "one fifth of Fireball . . ., a beer bong and a whole bunch of beer." She said that she "never had any fun," so she went to bed.

         Ms. Valencia testified that she awoke around 3:00 a.m. "to a fight going on," saying, "There's people screaming at each other, nothing out of the ordinary." When she got up to investigate, she saw the victim "standing over [Mr.] Carpeno who is sitting on the couch and he is just screaming at him. Just yelling at the top of his lungs, belligerent." When Mr. Lancaster asked the victim to leave, the victim "immediately threw a punch at" Mr. Lancaster. Before Mr. Lancaster could retaliate, the defendant "grabbed him and put him in a hold because that's what friends do." When Ms. Valencia attempted to intervene, the victim struck her with his elbow as he threw a punch at someone else. Ms. Valencia said that the fight did not last long and that, after it was over, she pulled Mr. Lancaster into the bathroom to calm down.

         When he saw that Ms. Valencia's lip was bleeding, Mr. Lancaster left the bathroom. Shortly thereafter, the victim came into the bathroom, and Ms. Valencia asked him to back up because she "was kind of scared." At that point, the victim said that he just needed to use the restroom. Ms. Valencia recalled that the defendant "actually came and saw that" she was upset and "up against the wall asking [the victim] to get away." She said that the defendant told the victim to step away from her.

         Ms. Valencia left the bathroom and went downstairs to calm Mr. Lancaster. While she was downstairs, she heard the victim "upstairs just punching walls and punching windows." She said that "[t]here were holes all over the house because he was upset, he was belligerent." A short time later, the defendant came downstairs and said "like, all right, guys, I'm going to get him out of here. I'm going to try to diffuse the situation, get him out of here, you guys are completely pissed off at him, I'll take care of it and I'll take him with me." Ms. Valencia did not see the pair leave because she had begun to argue with Mr. Lancaster, who had, by that time, "punched [the] TV."

         Ms. Valencia testified that the next time she saw the victim, he was in the hospital "on a heart monitor . . . keeping him alive." She said that the victim "was beat up pretty good and you could see the strangle marks from the shoestring around his neck." She stated that the marks around the victim's neck did not come from injuries he received during the fight, saying that she had seen him immediately after the fight and that "he had like maybe a bloody nose and a couple of scrapes." She said that the victim's face was "black and purple and swollen" and that he did not sustain those injuries during the fight.

         Gary Smith testified that on the morning of March 6, 2016, he was driving to the store from his home on Glen Holliday Road in Stewart County, which he described as "a rock road" with "cornfields on either side," when he "found the gentleman in the middle of the road." He stopped his truck, got out, and looked around "in the trees and to the hill to the side . . . just to make sure nobody else was around. It was kind of strange." Mr. Smith called out to the man, but the man did not respond. When he got close, Mr. Smith saw that the man was "kind of trying to breathe," so Mr. Smith knelt down and "tried to turn his head a little bit, because it was face down in the dirt." Mr. Smith telephoned 9-1-1 and "decided to roll him onto his side to maybe try to help him." While he was on the telephone with 9-1-1, Mr. Smith saw a "rope or shoelace" around the victim's neck. Mr. Smith cut the shoelace with a knife he had in his pocket, and the "color came back into [the man's] face a little bit, but he was still belaboring trying to breathe."

         Law enforcement officers and emergency medical personnel responded to Mr. Smith's call, and Mr. Smith remained on the scene until he was released by the investigating officer. Officers photographed and collected the shoelace that Mr. Smith had cut from the victim's neck.

         The victim was transported by ambulance to a predetermined landing area, where he was taken aboard an air ambulance to be transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Vanderbilt Life Flight Nurse Joe Brentise testified that the victim, who had no identification, "wasn't keeping his airway open on his own" and, as a result, "was in a life[-]threatening condition." When Mr. Brentise performed "a sternal rub," the victim responded with "decorticate posturing," which Mr. Brentise described as an involuntary response indicative of brain injury. The victim's pupils were unequal, which also indicated a brain injury. The victim had "bruising to the left of his forehead," "marks around his neck," and "abrasions to his left foot." Mr. Brentise placed an intubation tube and administered medications that sedated the victim before the flight took off for Vanderbilt Medical Center.

         Doctor Raeanna Adams first saw the victim on March 7, 2016, after the victim had been admitted into the trauma unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. During a neurological examination, the victim had "abnormal flexion of his left lower extremity to pain" but "[n]o other spontaneous movement." Although the victim "occasionally would just open his eyelids to pain," "he had no blink to threat," and "his eyes were not tracking." Doctor Adams said that these signs were "consistent with brain injury" "[t]hat results from a time period where there's not enough oxygen for the brain." Testing established the presence of "[v]ery thick mucus . . . which did grow out some bacteria, which was consistent with . . . aspiration meaning things from his stomach and from his mouth had gone down into his lungs into his windpipe." The victim's blood tested positive for the presence of benzodiazepines, which had been given to him on Life Flight, as well as alcohol and cocaine metabolites. The victim had "dysconjugate gaze," meaning "that the eyes are not looking straight forward in the same direction. One is looking a different direction than the other."

         Doctor Adams said that despite the severity of his injuries, the victim was not considered brain dead "[b]ecause he still did have some brainstem reflexes, some breathing. He had some eye opening, so some of those last few reflexes were still left." Doctor Adams nevertheless opined that the victim could not have recovered from his injuries to live a normal life. She noted that another doctor found "no response to pain stimuli" on March 10, 2016, indicating "a progression of worsening examination and worsening function." She said that the victim died "quite quickly" after life support was removed on that date.

         Stewart County Sheriff's Department Investigator David Evans responded to the scene on Glen Holliday Road in Indian Mound, which he described as a very rural area, but the victim had already been transported from the scene by the time Investigator Evans arrived. Investigator Evans traveled to the hospital, where he photographed the victim. He recalled that the victim was on life support and unconscious. Investigator Evans observed an abrasion on the victim's forehead and a "very bright red, very pushed in" "mark from where the shoelace had been around his neck." Investigator Evans also photographed the victim's tattoos, which photographs he had the Stewart County dispatcher "send out to local agencies asking for help identifying" the victim. A sergeant at the Montgomery County Jail identified the victim from the photographs and also provided Investigator Evans with contact information for the victim's ex-wife and his mother.

         Investigator Evans spoke with the victim's mother, who told him that she had spoken with the victim on the previous day. The victim told her that he had worked out with Mr. Lancaster at Planet Fitness in Clarksville. Using the victim's cellular telephone records, Investigator Evans was able to determine the location of the Planet Fitness, and he was able to observe video surveillance of the victim working out with Mr. Lancaster. Planet Fitness personnel provided Investigator Evans with a telephone number for Mr. Lancaster.

         Investigator Evans said that the information he gleaned during interviews with Mr. Lancaster and Ms. Valencia led him to interview the defendant. The video recording of that interview was played for the jury.

         At the outset of the interview, the defendant confirmed Mr. Lancaster's statement "that there had been some drinking going on and a fight had occurred. [The victim] was drinking heavily and picking fights with folks, and he decided to get him out of there." The defendant told Investigator Evans that he took the victim "for a ride . . . and then dropped him back off at the . . . house." When Investigator Evans told the defendant that his version of the events did not make any sense given the victim's condition, the defendant said, "'I wanted to teach him a lesson.'" The defendant told Investigator Evans, "'[Y]ou don't treat family that way,' the way [the victim] was treating the other individuals at the residence." Investigator Evans said that he thought the defendant's statement about family "was in reference to [the victim's] being recently out of the Army and going through a divorce and his friends kind of taking care of him."

         The defendant admitted to Investigator Evans "that he drove out to Glen Holliday Road, and once there, put the shoestring around [the victim's] neck, got out of the vehicle to relieve himself, got back into the vehicle, [and] noticed that [the victim] had turned blue." The defendant claimed that "[h]e panicked, pushed [the victim] out of the vehicle, and drove away." Investigator Evans said that he did not think that the defendant's version of events made sense given that the defendant was a soldier with "at least a basic first aid training." The defendant told Investigator Evans that the victim, who weighed approximately 240 or 250 pounds, "had passed out in the front passenger seat" as the defendant drove from Clarksville into Stewart County, which drive took approximately 37 minutes when Investigator Evans drove it.

         During the interview, Investigator Evans noticed that the defendant was wearing new shoes with laces that "matched the shoestring that was found around the victim's neck." The defendant told him that he always wore black and green New Balance shoes and that "he had gotten rid of" his old shoes.

         Investigator Evans described the victim's murder as "intimate," opining that "it's not spontaneous." He said,

[T]he shoelace was tied twice, so he had to get behind the victim with that shoelace, wrap it around his neck, not just once, twice, and then put that knot in there, a knot in such a way that you can't get it out. That's very intimate. That tells me that you wanted this guy to die.

         The victim died on March 10, 2016, after his family made the decision to withdraw life support. The defendant was then charged with first degree murder, and Investigator Evans brought him in for another interview. During that interview, the defendant related a story similar to that he gave during the first interview. The defendant again told Investigator Evans that he had driven the victim to Glen Holliday Road,

stopped, got out of the vehicle, went around the vehicle, got into the back passenger seat, got behind [the victim], took the shoelace -- because it was there -- wrapped it around his neck, not once, but twice, and then tied the knot. Indicated he got out of the vehicle, relieved himself, came back, the victim . . . was blue at that time. He said he panicked and he pushed him out.

         When Investigator Evans asked the defendant why he did not simply cut the string as Mr. Smith had done, the defendant ...

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