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State v. Dye

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

October 15, 2019


          Session June 18, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Dickson County No. 2015-CR-71 Larry J. Wallace, Judge

         A jury convicted the Defendant, Johnny Morgan Dye, of vehicular homicide through intoxication and vehicular homicide through reckless conduct, and the Defendant received an effective sentence of twelve years in confinement after the offenses were merged. The Defendant appeals, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence with respect to the vehicular homicide through intoxication conviction, arguing that the trial court erred in allowing certain expert testimony, and asserting that the trial court committed reversible error in the admission of evidence. After a thorough review of the record, we conclude that the evidence is sufficient and that the trial court did not err in its evidentiary decisions. The judgments of the trial court are affirmed.

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

          Olin J. Baker, Charlotte, Tennessee, for the appellant, Johnny Morgan Dye.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Katharine K. Decker, Assistant Attorney General; Wendell Ray Crouch, Jr., District Attorney General; and Jack T. Arnold, 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's truck crossed into oncoming traffic and caused a head-on collision with a station wagon, resulting in serious injuries to the Defendant and in the death of the victim, Mr. Jacob Akers. The State introduced evidence that the Defendant had been travelling recklessly and at excessive speeds immediately prior to the accident, that he had admitted using heroin, that there were syringes in the vehicle, and that he tested positive for amphetamine and hydrocodone. The Defendant disputed the admission of drug use and the significance of the blood test results, and he introduced an alternative explanation for the presence of syringes.

         At trial, Savannah Ladage, the victim's fiancée, testified that she and the victim had become engaged on July 4, 2014, and that the victim was preparing to attended medical school in the fall. She last saw the victim at around 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. on the day of the accident, July 7, 2014, when they met for dinner at Taco Bell.

         The State presented numerous witnesses who testified to the circumstances surrounding the collision. Mr. Ronnie Dale Tibbs was driving on Highway 49 when the Defendant passed him at a rate of speed so high that it "rocked my truck like a semi truck passed it." Mr. Tibbs described himself as "a 20-year auto tech" who had experience racing cars, and he estimated that the Defendant was travelling at 100 to 120 miles per hour. The Defendant was passing Mr. Tibbs in a no-passing zone and returned to Mr. Tibbs's lane before completing the pass, causing Mr. Tibbs to slam on his brakes to avoid a collision.

         Approximately three miles down the road, Mr. Tibbs came upon the scene of the accident. He approached the victim's vehicle and observed that the victim was unresponsive. He described the victim's breathing as a "gurgling" "death rattle." Mr. Tibbs' 911 call, including a statement that the Defendant had been travelling in excess of 100 miles per hour, was introduced into evidence. On cross-examination, Mr. Tibbs acknowledged that the Defendant would have had to have slowed down prior to the accident due to a series of "S" curves in the road which his vehicle would not have been able to negotiate at 100 miles per hour or more.

         Ms. Jill Pardue, a nurse, witnessed the collision. The Defendant's vehicle passed her immediately before the accident, but she could not estimate the Defendant's speed, noting that she was travelling under the speed limit because her children were screaming in the back of the car. She stated that there was a rise in the road which obstructed any view of oncoming traffic. The Defendant's vehicle completed its pass of Ms. Pardue and subsequently veered into the other lane, hitting the victim's vehicle. Ms. Pardue had to slam on her brakes to avoid becoming involved in the collision. She attempted to aid the Defendant and the victim. After ascertaining that the Defendant was able to speak, Ms. Pardue approached the victim, who, before losing consciousness, asked her to tell his parents that he did not suffer.

         Ms. Cyndi Chester observed the collision from her yard with two teenagers, her daughter and daughter's friend. She testified that the truck nearly hit them and that they were hit by debris. The truck was redirected when it hit a tree and came to rest by a telephone pole. The collision happened while it was light outside and the conditions were not wet. The Defendant was able to crawl out of his truck, and he was able to tell her his name and age.

         Ms. Anna Cummings, Ms. Chester's daughter, confirmed her mother's testimony. She also stated that the Defendant was lying on the ground after exiting the truck, and a woman came to "visit" him. Ms. Cummings saw the woman enter the truck. Ms. Nadia Hambalek, Ms. Cummings's friend, likewise confirmed that they saw a collision and fled the careening truck and debris. Ms. Hambalek testified that the Defendant's "girlfriend or a wife or someone" came to the scene, and he asked the woman for a cigarette, which she gave him. The woman entered the vehicle and went to the glove box. Ms. Hambalek could not say whether she took anything from the vehicle, but "she did go in and came right back out and then left and then came right back." Ms. Hambalek testified that she believed the woman was not retrieving a cigarette because the woman did not enter the truck until after the Defendant had begun to smoke. Ms. Hambalek took the Defendant's cigarette away for his safety. Frantic emergency calls made by Ms. Chester and Ms. Cummings were introduced into evidence.

         Mr. Jason Reed, a registered nurse employed by Vanderbilt Lifeflight, testified that he was called to the scene by other emergency personnel at 8:47 p.m. and that he assisted in transporting the Defendant to the hospital after the collision. The Defendant was given one hundred micrograms of fentanyl by emergency workers prior to Mr. Reed's arrival. Mr. Reed asked the Defendant about his current medications, and the Defendant responded that he was taking oxycodone. The Defendant's "neuro status," assessing "if [he could] answer questions [and] follow commands," was fourteen out of fifteen points, which was near normal. The Defendant's femur was noticeably deformed, and the Defendant was described as lethargic. On cross-examination, Mr. Reed acknowledged that he could not testify regarding whether oxycodone was actually present in the Defendant's system.

         The trial court held a jury-out hearing on the admissibility of the testimony of Ms. Amanda Hawn, who was married to the Defendant at the time of the collision, regarding a bag of syringes she discovered in the remains of the truck. Ms. Hawn testified that she came upon the collision scene by happenstance after the Defendant refused to contact her and she decided to drive around to find him. She retrieved the Defendant's telephone from the truck. She stated that in the days following the accident, the Defendant asked her persistently to get his work bag from his truck, ostensibly because it contained the vehicle title. With permission from the district attorney's office, she visited the lot where the vehicle was kept and retrieved the bag. The bag contained no papers, only tools and an open bag of unused syringes. Ms. Hawn stated she felt she had been "betrayed and set up" and that she took photographs of the contents of the bag. She could not say why the dates on the photographs showed that they were taken on July 6, 2013. Ms. Hawn at first testified that the Defendant acknowledged heroin use to her, but she later stated that his actual words were that he had "made a mistake." She understood this statement to be a reference to heroin use. The trial court excluded Ms. Hawn's testimony that the Defendant acknowledged heroin use and that she discovered burnt spoons in her garage, but it ruled the testimony regarding the syringes admissible.

         The trial court also evaluated the admissibility of the testimony of Ms. Hawn's mother, Ms. Patricia Arnold, who testified regarding the Defendant's acknowledged drug use. Ms. Arnold asserted that the Defendant had exchanged text messages with her regarding his attempt to reform by selling his pain medication rather than using it. During a subsequent telephone call, he told her he had used heroin either on the day of the collision or the day before the collision. The trial court excluded the text messages as prejudicial but concluded the Defendant's statements about heroin were admissible.

         Ms. Hawn subsequently testified before the jury that the Defendant continually and persistently asked her to get the work bag from the pickup after the collision for the purported reason that the title of the vehicle was inside. She stated that she felt around inside the bag and could not feel paper, so she dumped out the contents. In addition to work tools, she found a bag of insulin needles. The Defendant did not take insulin. Ms. Hawn identified her photographs of the work bag and syringes and acknowledged that the date stamps on the photographs were inaccurate but that she could not explain the inaccuracies. She stated that the Defendant's coworkers would not have had access to his truck because all the workers would ride to a job site together in a company vehicle. Ms. Hawn testified that she filed for divorce in September 2015 but later agreed she was mistaken about the year and that she filed for divorce shortly after the collision.

         Ms. Arnold testified that during a telephone conversation, the Defendant acknowledged having made bad decisions. She stated that "the subject came up about him using black tar heroin, and I asked him did he do it, and he said yes." The Defendant told her that he had used heroin either on the day of or the day before the ...

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