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State v. Jeffries

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

October 10, 2019


          Session June 19, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. II-CR-170365 James G. Martin, III, Judge

         A jury convicted the Defendant, Joseph Marquis Jeffries, of two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of reckless endangerment, domestic assault, interference with emergency communications, trafficking for a commercial sex act, and promotion of prostitution. The trial court merged various offenses and imposed an aggregate sentence of twenty-five years. The Defendant asserts that the trial court erred in not severing the sexual offenses from the assaultive offenses and that the trial court erred in allowing evidence of prior bad acts. We conclude that the offenses were properly joined and that there was no error in the admission of evidence, and we accordingly affirm the judgments.

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

          Vanessa Pettigrew Bryan, District Public Defender, and J. Gregory Burlison (at trial and on appeal) and Chelsea Curtis (at trial), Assistant District Public Defenders, and Patrick T. McNally (on reply brief), for the appellant, Joseph Marquis Jeffries.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; M. Todd Ridley, Assistant Attorney General; Kim R. Helper, District Attorney General; and Kelly Lawrence, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          John Everett Williams, P.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., and Robert L. Holloway, Jr., JJ., joined.




         The Defendant was arrested after he assaulted and choked the pregnant victim, who was working as a prostitute to support him. The assault left the victim unconscious and with multiple facial fractures, and the Defendant was charged with various offenses related to the assault, including attempted second degree murder, aggravated assault by strangulation, aggravated assault by serious bodily injury, domestic assault, reckless endangerment of the victim's fetus, interference with emergency communications, and evading arrest. When investigators discovered that both the victim and another woman sharing a hotel room with the Defendant were engaging in prostitution for his benefit, he was also charged with promoting prostitution and four counts of trafficking for a commercial sex act, setting out two alternative theories for each victim.

         Pretrial Hearing

         The Defendant moved to sever the offenses, contending that the offenses related to the assault, the sexual offenses for each victim, the offense of promoting prostitution, and the offense of evading arrest should all be tried separately. At the hearing, the victim testified regarding her relationship with the Defendant and the circumstances surrounding the offenses.

         The twenty-two-year-old victim stated that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety in middle school and that her juvenile behavior resulted in suspensions and ultimately in her removal from her mother's home to a juvenile facility. The victim began using marijuana in her early teens, then became addicted to pain killers and eventually to heroin. The victim had a baby while she was a teenager, and the victim's mother cared for the victim's child but had refused to house the victim.

         The victim began engaging in acts of prostitution to support her drug habit when she was fifteen. When she met the Defendant, she had been living for a period of months in a Florida hotel, prostituting herself multiple times a day to support a drug habit that could consume as much as $800 per day. The victim met the Defendant when he drove past her and offered to take her to a store, and she ultimately confided in him regarding her life choices and drug addiction.

         The victim and Defendant moved to Atlanta, and they began to have a sexual and romantic relationship. The victim stopped using drugs but began to use alcohol. During this time, the victim continued to work as a prostitute. She testified that she was the sole source of income for herself and the Defendant. The victim felt the Defendant had "been sent by God" because he introduced her to a life where her earnings from prostitution were spent on entertainment, travel, and grooming rather than drugs. She and the Defendant traveled to South Carolina, Texas, Colorado, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, where the Defendant would advertise her as a prostitute online. She acknowledged that prior to meeting the Defendant, she had posted advertisements for herself on the website Backpage and that she occasionally still posted them after she and the Defendant were together, at his direction.

         The victim stated that her relationship with the Defendant gradually turned physically and mentally abusive. The Defendant kept all of the money she earned, and the money was no longer spent on travel, entertainment, or the victim's appearance. The victim felt she was "walking on eggshells" and that confrontations were her fault. If the Defendant was in a bad mood, he would force her to strip after acts of prostitution to make sure she was not hiding money. The Defendant would control when she was permitted to leave the room for food; he would monitor her calls to family; and she had to ask him before she could "do anything." She recalled that one day, she was afraid to ask him if she could get a drink of tap water. She stated that the Defendant always kept her identification and debit cards. He also generally kept her telephone, returning it to her when she was with a client.

         The Defendant had made indirect threats to the victim's child, warning her, "I wouldn't do that[;] remember, I know where your family stays." The Defendant had also repeatedly threatened her with a gun, putting the gun to her head. The victim stated that when the Defendant physically assaulted her, she would try to be quiet, because any noise would anger him further and because he had threatened to kill her before help could come if she did call for help.

         The victim had left the Defendant numerous times but always returned because the he would contact her, because she missed the good times they had had at the beginning of their relationship, and because she did not have anywhere to go, particularly as he had control of her money and ID. She testified that she once left him in a public place and once when they were in custody and released from jail at separate times.

         The Defendant and victim were both arrested in Alabama for having a gun in their car. The victim testified that she left the Defendant but returned to him because she felt guilty that his gun charges were still pending while hers had been dismissed and because she intended to earn money for an attorney for the Defendant through prostitution. The victim had also recently discovered that she was pregnant and hoped her pregnancy would change their relationship. The Defendant was concerned about the loss of income that her pregnancy would entail, and the "only option was bringing in another female."

         When the victim returned to the Defendant one to two weeks before the assault, she discovered that a friend of hers from Florida had begun staying with the Defendant. She and her friend both engaged in prostitution in Atlanta, with the Defendant posting online advertisements. The Defendant kept the money and purchased bus tickets to come to Nashville. After one night in Nashville, the three moved to a hotel in Brentwood, and the Defendant continued to post advertisements online for the two women to engage in prostitution.

         The victim testified that there was a "big difference" in the number of clients she saw compared to the number her friend saw and that her friend received lower offers and fewer calls because she looked "tom-boyish." The Defendant wanted the victim to alter her friend's appearance to make her more profitable. In particular, the victim's friend's hair was problematic because it was very short.

         On February 14, 2017, the three had bought Valentine's Day presents and were drinking alcohol. The victim and her friend each saw one or two clients that day, but they "were trying to fix the appearance before we continued really even working," and it was accordingly "a laid-back day." The victim testified that the situation "really escalated" when she could not figure out how to put a hair tie into her friend's hair, which was a different texture from her own. While the victim's friend was in the bathroom, the Defendant began to hit the victim and eventually choked her until she was unconscious. The victim woke between the bed and an air vent, and the Defendant continued the assault. The victim's friend left the bathroom, and the victim and the Defendant went into the bathroom, where he assaulted her again. The victim believed the assault was over, but the Defendant then began to look through the victim's social media accounts, and he became angered when he noticed that a friend of his had commented on one of her photographs. The victim stated that the Defendant began to punch her and raised a bottle of liquor as though to strike her. She testified that although she was normally quiet during an assault, she realized that he did not have the gun with him, and she screamed, "I hate you, get off me, I hate you." The Defendant responded, "I'm going to kill you, bitch." He choked her again until she lost consciousness. When she woke up, she was face-down in blood. She was able to locate the cord of the hotel telephone under the bed, and she plugged it into the telephone and summoned help from the front desk.

         The victim acknowledged numerous prior convictions, including theft, possession of cocaine, possession of paraphernalia, resisting arrest, trespass, fraud, and prostitution. She also acknowledged she had a juvenile record which included a home invasion. She agreed that she had lied about her pregnancy after she summoned assistance on the night of the assault, explaining that she feared she would face repercussions for drinking while pregnant. She also acknowledged that she may have told law enforcement that the Defendant helped her stop abusing drugs, but she stated that she now felt she was manipulated into thinking so and that she believed she had beaten her addiction herself.

         Regarding severance, the trial court concluded that the crimes in question took place in close sequence and in the same place. It also concluded that it would be impossible for the jury to understand the case "without proof of one of these offenses spilling over into another offense," in particular because the conflict began with the victim's failure to properly groom another prostitute. Finding that the proof was "inextricably connected," the court concluded that the offenses should be mandatorily joined and that severance was not necessary for a fair determination of the issues.

         The Defendant also moved to exclude any evidence of prior crimes or bad acts under Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b). In particular, the Defendant challenged any testimony about prostituting or assaulting the victim outside the jurisdiction, about prior arrests, and the victim's testimony that she returned to him to earn money for an attorney for a criminal charge.

         The trial court found that the Defendant's conduct in other states was relevant to establishing the elements of the charges of trafficking the victim and promoting prostitution, in particular to whether he attempted to benefit from the commercial sex acts and whether he recruited, enticed, harbored, or transported, provided, purchased, or obtained the victim by any other means. The trial court found the evidence of the acts clear and convincing based on the victim's testimony, and it concluded that the probative value was not substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice. The trial court also found the evidence regarding the gun arrest clear and convincing and relevant to the victim's motivation for staying with the Defendant despite the alleged abuse, and it concluded that the probative value outweighed the prejudicial effect. The trial court offered to give a limiting instruction.


         Prior to trial, the State dismissed the two counts of the indictment charging the Defendant with trafficking the victim's friend for a commercial sex act. During opening statements, the prosecutor observed that the victim and Defendant at first would travel for pleasure but later only for the purpose of engaging in prostitution in different cities. The State mentioned the Defendant's possession of a gun in discussing the victim's decision to remain with him. The prosecutor also stated that both the Defendant and victim were taken into custody for the possession of a gun in Alabama and that the victim returned to the Defendant to help him earn money for an attorney. The defense argued that the victim had been a willing participant in prostitution and that the jury could infer that she had agreed to the suggestion that she was a victim of trafficking in order to avoid any consequences for her own criminal acts.

         The victim's testimony at trial was largely consistent with her testimony at the hearing. She spoke about her upbringing, her mental health issues, her expulsion from her mother's home due to drugs, and her reliance on prostitution to support a drug addiction. She reiterated that her relationship with the Defendant was initially very positive, that they began a romantic relationship, that she was able to stop using heroin, and that the money she earned through prostitution was invested in eating out, clothing, and fixing her hair and nails.

         The victim testified that she and the Defendant traveled to South Carolina, Texas, Colorado, Ohio, Tennessee, New Orleans, and Las Vegas. The Defendant was unemployed during the entirety of the time they were together, and all of the money they used was earned through the victim's prostitution. She testified that the Defendant kept her identification, her debit cards, and her telephone. She stated that the Defendant would post the majority of the online advertisements for her services as a prostitute but that she also would post advertisements. The Defendant would allow her to keep her telephone when she was with a client, and she would text the Defendant when the client was arriving or leaving.

         On cross-examination, the victim denied that the Defendant only held her valuables to prevent potential theft by a client, and she stated he would only allow her to use her telephone freely on "good" days. She agreed that she had the ability to call for help but stated she did not have the courage to do so. She agreed that after a client impersonated a police officer and handcuffed her at their Nashville hotel, she became afraid, and she stated that after that, she would call the Defendant and leave the telephone on for her own safety while she was with a client.

         The victim clarified that she had left the Defendant at times she felt physically safe, including once in a public area, once when they were separately released from jail, and once while he was asleep. She testified that when the Defendant would be physically abusive, he would "put [the gun] to my head with a pillow over my head." She stated they were both taken into custody when police found a gun in their car in Alabama and that she left him when they were released on different dates. The victim, feeling guilty that her case was resolved and the ...

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