Belcher v. State

Citation341 So.3d 237
Decision Date16 December 2020
Docket NumberCR-18-0740
Parties Michael David BELCHER v. STATE of Alabama
CourtAlabama Court of Criminal Appeals

Angela L. Setzer, Alicia A. D'Addario, and Adam B. Murphy of Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery, for appellant.

Steve Marshall, atty. gen., and Morgan B. Shelton, asst. atty. gen., for appellee.

KELLUM, Judge.

Michael David Belcher was convicted of murdering Samantha Payne during the course of a kidnapping, an offense defined as capital by § 13A-5-40(a)(1), Ala. Code 1975. The jury unanimously recommended that Belcher be sentenced to death, and the circuit court sentenced Belcher to death. This appeal, which is automatic in a case involving the death penalty, followed. See § 13A-5-53, Ala. Code 1975.

The State's evidence tended to show that on November 9, 2015, a hunter discovered the nude, decapitated, and decomposed body of Samantha Payne tied to the base of a tree in Talladega National Forest. Samantha's hands were stretched upward and bound to the base of the tree with a leather belt, and "coaxial cable" was tied around Samantha's wrists. (R. 920.) Her head was approximately 14 feet from her body. Dr. Steven Dunton, a medical examiner with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, testified that because Samantha's body was so decomposed it was impossible for him to determine her exact cause of death. (R. 923.) He said that X-rays revealed that Samantha had fractures to four of her ribs

and that those fractures were caused by a "crushing trauma of some type." (R. 928.) Samantha was alive, he said, when she was tied to the tree. Dr. Dunton testified that, based on his experience, he did "not believe" that Samantha died of natural causes. (R. 928.)

Two of Belcher's codefendants testified in exchange for plea agreements with the State. Chylli Bruce testified that she pleaded guilty to her role in the kidnapping and murder of Samantha and that, as part of that agreement, she agreed to testify truthfully at her codefendants’ trials.1 (R. 464.) She testified that she was a drug addict; that she was using crystal methamphetamine at the time of the murder; that she met Belcher when she was 18 years old; and that they "hung out" together for several months before the murder. (R. 469.) On the night of the murder, Bruce said, she, Belcher, Steven George, Alyssa Watson, and Marcus George were at a place called Wee Racing ("the Shop"), a motorcycle-repair shop that was owned by Belcher's father, when Samantha arrived at around 2:00 a.m. At around 3:00 a.m., Belcher forced Samantha into the backseat of his vehicle and held her down while Bruce drove the vehicle to Belcher's house. Steven, Alyssa, and Marcus,2 followed in a separate vehicle. When Belcher got out of his vehicle, Samantha was screaming and Belcher was hitting her in the face. (R. 478.) Instead of going into Belcher's house, they got back into the vehicles and drove to an abandoned trailer on Highway 82. According to Bruce:

"[Samantha] is taken out of the car. [Belcher] is trying to tie her up in the back seat, but she won't be still. So I place my foot on her face, and I guess he's tying her up with the belt or something. The next thing I remember she's laying on the ground, she's tied up. I'm asked to take her fingernails off."

(R. 480.) Bruce got a knife and "popped" off Samantha's artificial fingernails (R. 480), Belcher and Marcus beat and kicked her, and then they put Samantha into the trunk of one of the vehicles and drove to Talladega National Forest. At one point, Samantha fell out of the trunk when the vehicle hit a pothole, and Bruce helped Belcher put Samantha back into the trunk and they drove into the forest. Bruce testified:

"We come to a bridge. Marcus says that -- tells [Belcher] that we're going to have to kill her. [Belcher] says that we will have to. So we get back on the road, and we keep going into this forest. We run out of gas."

(R. 484.) At that point, Marcus and Alyssa drove past them in their vehicle. Belcher and Steven then took Samantha out of the trunk and led her into the forest. Shortly thereafter, Bruce said, Steven returned and she and Steven walked to a campsite and called Steven's brother to bring them gas. After Bruce and Steven put gas in the car and tried to leave, police arrived. Belcher's vehicle was searched, and Bruce was arrested, charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, and taken to jail. About four days after she was released from jail, Bruce said, she saw Belcher and he confessed to her that he had killed Samantha by stabbing her.

Steven testified that he pleaded guilty to murder in exchange for his testimony at his codefendants’ trials. He testified that in September 2015, he started spending a lot of time with Belcher and the two would hang out together and "do drugs" at the Shop. (R. 547.) On the evening of November 1, 2015, Belcher, Marcus, Alyssa, and Samantha were at the Shop. Steven said that he took Samantha's vehicle when she went to the bathroom and left her keys on a counter. He and Marcus drove down Highway 219, but he decided that he wanted the vehicle's catalytic converter, so he drove back to the Shop. After removing the catalytic converter, he set the vehicle on fire. He and Marcus then went to Belcher's house so that he could change clothes. When they returned to the Shop, Steven said, Belcher and Bruce were in Belcher's vehicle and were driving away from the Shop. They followed them to Belcher's house. Belcher pulled Samantha from the backseat of his vehicle and started kicking and slamming Samantha into the floor. Samantha's face was bleeding badly. (R. 562.) The group then got into two vehicles and drove to an abandoned trailer and house. (R. 563.) When they arrived, Belcher continued to kick and stomp Samantha in the face. Belcher told Steven to get something he could use to tie up Samantha, so Steven went and got some cable wire from the trailer. Samantha was crawling around and telling them that she "loved them" and that she would not tell anyone what they had done. (R. 565.) Belcher, Bruce, and Steven then left in Belcher's vehicle with Samantha in the trunk and Belcher driving. Samantha fell out of the trunk and Belcher stopped. Bruce helped Belcher put Samantha back in the trunk. Belcher said that he knew a place that they could take her, and they headed to the Talladega National Forest. They ran out of gas. According to Steven:

"And then [Belcher] said, We got to get her out of the car.’ So he gets her out of the car, starts dragging her in the woods. [Belcher] told me to come help him. So I get out of the car, go help him drag her in the woods."

(R. 572.)

"[S]he kept trying to get loud with him. So [Belcher] started stomping her in the face. Said, Shut up. If you don't shut up, I'm going to kill you. He told me to get some more rope out of the car. So I was fixing to go get -- He said, Well, hand me your knife. I gave him the knife, and I went to the car. When I got to the car, [Bruce] was already walking back. I told [Bruce] to get in the car. I got the car cranked up. It might have went a few feet and cut off. Then me and her went up the hill to the firing -- shooting range. We got in a conversation with the game wardens, asking for some gas. They didn't have no gas, so we kept walking. So I got up the road."

(R. 575.) The last time he saw Samantha, Steven said, she was fully dressed and alive.

Deputy Enoch Rose of the Hale County Sheriff's Department testified that he was dispatched to Talladega National Forest on November 2, 2015, in response to an emergency 911 call that "somebody was up there, supposedly one of Tuscaloosa County's most wanted ... and that subject was up there walking on the road and asking for gas." (R. 615.) He approached a vehicle and found Steven and Bruce. Deputy Rose said that he verified with dispatch that the vehicle belonged to Belcher. After searching the vehicle and the surrounding area, he found a knife near the passenger side front tire of the vehicle. (R. 627.) That knife was identified as belonging to Steven and as the knife that Steven said he gave to Belcher before Samantha was taken into the forest.

Michelle Koster testified that on November 2, 2015, she was visiting her daughter, Lauren Harvey, on Bear Creek Road and that, at around 11:00 a.m., she went to her vehicle and looked down the road and saw someone walking up the street. She said that she got Lauren and her grandchildren to go inside the house but that the man knocked on the door and tried to get into the house. Koster said that the man had no shirt, but she did not notice anything else about him. Lauren telephoned her father-in-law and emergency 911.

James Harvey testified that on the morning of November 2, 2015, Lauren telephoned him and said that a "half-naked man" was beating on her door and trying to get into her house. (R. 655.) He lived about four miles from Lauren, so he got into his vehicle and drove to her house. As Harvey approached Lauren's driveway, he said, Lauren called him. The man had left her house, and she told Harvey the direction that the man was walking. Harvey found a man, who he identified at trial as Belcher, sitting on the guardrail of a bridge. He said that Belcher had no shirt and had scratches all over him, and that there was a "red tint" to his hands that Harvey believed was some type of blood. (R. 662.) Harvey said that Belcher told him that his friends had played a trick on him; that they had left him in the woods; and that he had been walking all night. Harvey drove Belcher to a local store. Lauren called Harvey and told him that deputies wanted to talk to Belcher. Harvey said that he then drove Belcher back to where he had picked up Belcher and that deputies were waiting for them.

Lieutenant Al Jackson with the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office testified that he was called to South Sandy Road in response to a call about a "wanted person." (...

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