Branch v. State

Decision Date27 May 2004
Docket NumberNo. 2002-DP-01315-SCT.,2002-DP-01315-SCT.
Citation882 So.2d 36
PartiesLawrence BRANCH v. STATE of Mississippi.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel by James Lappan, Candy Lawson, attorneys for appellant.

Office of the Attorney General by Melanie Kathryn Dotson, Judy T. Martin, Marvin L. White, Jr., attorneys for appellee.

EN BANC.

CARLSON, Justice, for the Court.

¶ 1. Upon finding Lawrence Branch guilty of the crime of capital murder for the January 21, 2001, killing of Dorothy Jorden, the same jury imposed the death penalty. On this direct appeal, Branch is now represented by the Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel. Branch raises nineteen issues in this appeal. Finding no reversible error, we affirm Branch's conviction and sentence.

FACTS

¶ 2. On January 20, 2001, after working the 3-11 p.m. shift at Heatcraft in Grenada, Lawrence Branch drove to the home of his cousin, Deondray Johnson. When Johnson got into Branch's car, he was carrying a piece of furniture wood that had been lying in Johnson's yard. Branch did not ask any questions. The two then went to Dot's Burger Bar ("Dot's"), a restaurant and club in Coila owned by the victim Dorothy Jorden, age 57. Jorden lived in a house adjacent to Dot's. While at Dot's, the two played pool and drank beer. There was also a card game in which Jorden won money. Branch and Johnson stayed until closing.

¶ 3. At approximately 1:30 a.m., Branch and Johnson had agreed to give two fellow patrons, Mary Jenkins ("Punkin") and Anthony Gatewood, a ride home. Before leaving, they had also promised to return and give Johnson's mother, Janie Johnson, a ride home. Branch never returned to give Johnson a ride home.

¶ 4. This is where the Branch's retelling of the events of the evening diverge. There are three versions: one Branch told police on January 21 during their first encounter; one Branch told the police during their second meeting on January 21 which was videotaped; and the one Branch told during the suppression hearing and at trial. What is known is that about 4:00 p.m. on January 21, Jorden's body was found inside her home in a pool of blood. It became apparent that she was beaten in the head outside because there was a bloody indentation in the ground about the size of an adult head. Jorden's earring was found in that indentation. A broken stick of wood was found in the woods.

¶ 5. The police began speaking to everyone who had been at the club the night before, the last two interviewed were Branch and Johnson. Carroll County Sheriff Donald Gray and Deputy Eddie Corley went to Branch's home and requested that Branch come to the station to answer some questions. Branch told them that he had to go to work, and they assured him that he would be back in time. The Sheriff took the clothing that Branch said he wore the night before. At the same time, Deputies Spellman and Michael Peeples went to Johnson's house and brought him in for questioning. While at the Johnson home, the officers found wood which appeared to be identical to the broken stick found in the woods. They also took the clothing Johnson wore the night before.

¶ 6. This is what Branch told the officers at the station, according to Deputy Spellman: Branch and Johnson drove Punkin and Gatewood to their home. After talking to Gatewood, they forgot to return to pick up Johnson's mom. They went to Winona and then a club called "51" where they stayed about an hour to an hour and a half. When they left, they went to a girl's house and stayed for an hour to an hour and a half, then went home.

¶ 7. After telling this version to the police, Branch was returned to his home so that he could get ready for work. Afterwards, the police questioned Johnson. Because the two admitted being together all evening and their stories did not "match," the Sheriff telephoned Branch at work and said that he would come pick Branch up for more questioning. One item that raised suspicion was that the police knew there had been some problems with the club on Highway 51 in the past and that deputies regularly go to the club around 2 a.m. to insure that it closes and people leave. Branch's version would have put the two at the club after closing time.

¶ 8. At the suppression hearing and at trial, Branch described this encounter as follows: Deputies Michael Spellman and Robert "Pop" Miskelly came to his work. Branch went outside with them. Before being put into the vehicle, Spellman told him that they were putting handcuffs on him for the safety of him and the officers. The handcuffs were placed in the front of Branch's body. Spellman immediately began asking questions and told Branch that his and Johnson's stories did not match. Spellman began swearing at him and stopped the car at which time he waved his gun in the rearview mirror. Spellman also told Branch that the house that recently burnt down was not an accident. Branch knew that an adult and child died in that house fire. Spellman went on to say that Branch would not want anything like that to happen to the pretty little house on the hill. Branch felt Spellman was talking about his parent's home where Branch and his family lived. Then Spellman told Branch what to say once they got to the station. While the camera was on, Branch just repeated everything Spellman told him to say.

¶ 9. Deputy Spellman admitted to talking to Branch in the car from Grenada to the station, but denied threatening him, stopping along side the road at any point, or even talking about the case. Branch began talking, but Deputy Spellman told him to wait until they arrived at the office. The videotape reveals Branch describing the events after he and Johnson left Dot's as follows: After dropping off Punkin and Gatewood, Branch and Johnson stopped on the side of the road and walked through the woods where they discussed robbing Jorden. They watched Jorden leave, giving Johnson and a male companion a ride home. The two moved closer to the house. When Jorden returned, Johnson was near a vehicle already parked in the yard and Branch was alongside the house. Jorden got out of her truck and walked up to the door, unlocking it. However, instead of going in, she returned to the truck. That is when Johnson came up from behind and struck Jorden. Branch says that he "heard her holler. Then I came from around the edge and I heard them tussling to the ground. And [Johnson] hit her a couple of times, and I hit her a couple of times. And I was just holding her down. I hold her down where I could get the money out of her pocket." Branch was shown the stick that was found and he told the officers that "that is part of it." He later indicated that he hit Jorden three times and Johnson hit Jorden three times. Then they drug her body into the house and sat her up on the floor. After searching for more money, they left with approximately two hundred dollars and Jorden's pistol. When they got back to the car, they checked each other for blood. Johnson did not have any blood on him, but Branch did. They went into the woods where Branch removed and burnt his clothes. Then, they went on to Grenada where they ate breakfast.

¶ 10. At the trial, Branch testified to the events after leaving Dot's as follows: After dropping Punkin and Gatewood off at their house, Branch and Johnson just drove up the road to Winona. They were talking about a club called "Trick Daddy" but instead went to "51," which was closed. They followed the people leaving the club to a Texaco store in Winona. They hung out in the parking lot until they followed two girls, Rose and Bird, to their house. After that, Branch and Johnson drove to Grenada where they got gas, went to Wal-Mart, then ate at the Huddle House. Then, Branch took Johnson home. Upon leaving Johnson's house, Anthony Hays asked Branch to take him home, which Branch did. Branch then returned to his own house.

¶ 11. Several days after Branch's arrest, Branch's father, Willie Branch, found a white plastic bag in high grass and weeds on the Johnson's property. (The Johnson and Branch families live next door to each other.) Branch's counsel, Ms. Crawford and Mr. Osborne, contacted the Sheriff and arranged to meet the following morning. Willie Branch and Branch's attorneys turned the bag into the Sheriff. The bag contained a pistol, money, food stamps, and coin wrappers.

¶ 12. The autopsy performed by Dr. Steven Hayne revealed that Jorden died from closed head injuries secondary to blunt force trauma. Based upon the bruising and tearing of the flesh, Dr. Hayne estimated that Jorden was struck approximately five to six times on the top of the head and that these blows would have required a considerable amount of force. Defensive wounds found on Jorden indicate that she was conscious during at least part of the attack.

¶ 13. Evidence of blood was found on Johnson's clothing. DNA comparison revealed that the blood was Jorden's. Jorden's blood was also found on the broken stick. Tests also confirmed that the two pieces of wood found previously constituted one piece and that both pieces were consistent with other wood found at Johnson's home. Johnson's palm print was found on one of the food stamps within the white bag found by Willie Branch. The pistol found in the bag was traced back to Jorden through the serial number.

PROCEEDINGS

¶ 14. Branch was indicted in the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Carroll County for capital murder with the underlying felony of robbery. Johnson was also indicted, but tried separately. Johnson's proceedings are not at issue in this appeal. Branch's pretrial hearings and jury trial were conducted before Judge C.E. Morgan, III. After one and one-half hours of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict. The sentencing phase began the following morning and resulted in the death penalty.

¶ 15. The Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel was appointed to...

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