Compton v. Com., 780485

Citation219 Va. 716,250 S.E.2d 749
Decision Date12 January 1979
Docket NumberNo. 780485,780485
PartiesWatson Henry COMPTON v. COMMONWEALTH of Virginia. Record
CourtSupreme Court of Virginia

Page 749

250 S.E.2d 749
219 Va. 716
Watson Henry COMPTON
Record No. 780485.
Supreme Court of Virginia.
Jan. 12, 1979.

Page 750

[219 Va. 717] Franklin M. Slayton, South Boston, for appellant.

[219 Va. 718] Thomas D. Bagwell, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Marshall Coleman, Atty. Gen., on brief), for appellee.


HARRISON, Justice.

Watson Henry Compton was convicted by a jury of murder of the second degree and was sentenced by the court to confinement in the penitentiary for a period of 15 years. The victim was Hattie C. Ratliff, defendant's alleged fiancee. Defendant has appealed, assigning numerous errors.

At the time of the homicide Compton was 45 years old and was employed as the Compliance Fieldman for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in Pittsylvania County. The defendant had been recently divorced from his wife. Mrs. Ratliff, a small woman, five-feet-three-inches tall and weighing approximately 135 pounds, had two children by her divorced husband. Compton testified that he and the victim had planned to be married in February, 1977. Mrs. Ratliff, a frequent visitor who kept clothing and other personal items at Compton's mobile home, spent the night of January 28, 1977, with defendant in his trailer. 1

On Saturday, January 29, 1977, Compton and Mrs. Ratliff spent most of the day together. They visited her father in a hospital in the afternoon and returned to the mobile home about 6 p. m. After returning, the parties made numerous telephone

Page 751

calls, including one from Mrs. Ratliff to her son. She also called Robert Clark, Mayor of Danville, and she and defendant discussed with the Mayor the effect of the oil shortage on the trailer court occupants. Compton called a Mr. Weatherford regarding the fuel shortage and also had three separate telephone conversations with his former wife, Nancy Compton, regarding the status of their divorce. Compton said that during his first conversation with her, Mrs. Ratliff "cut the phone off"; that Mrs. Compton returned the call and they were again disconnected for some unknown reason; and that this prompted a third call to Compton by his former wife. He said that these calls, together with Mrs. Ratliff's mistaken belief that the Weatherford conversation was with Mrs. Compton, incensed Mrs. Ratliff to the point that she became so upset and [219 Va. 719] irrational that she said "if that bitch calls you back anymore, I'll kill her", and later "if you are talking to that bitch again I'll go down there and shoot her, kill her". The defendant attributed the victim's behavior to the fact that she had been drinking earlier in the evening, as well as taking prescription drugs, valium and darvocet, for her arthritic condition. He said the combination of drugs and liquor caused her to become upset and unsteady on her feet. 2

Defendant testified that he was afraid that Mrs. Ratliff would leave the trailer with a handgun that she sometimes carried for protection. He checked and found that the gun was not in its usual position on a nail in a closet. He asked her where the gun was and Mrs. Ratliff said she did not know. Compton said that he thought she may have had the gun in her pocket, and that he was apprehensive because on a previous occasion, when the victim had become upset, she had gone to the home of his former wife to, in her words, "see what a good bitch you left". 3

Defendant said that he again asked Mrs. Ratliff about her gun and that she still denied having it or knowing where it was. He said at that time he noticed his shotgun sitting in the closet and "decided I had better get the gun and check it and put it back in the back closet with the other gun (referring to a .22 rifle owned by Compton)". He said that he took the gun, sat down at the table across from Mrs. Ratliff and "set the gun on my knee and pulled the slide back on it pointing over to the corner of the kitchen away from her". Then, he said "a shell came up and I saw the gun was loaded". He further said: "When I first ejected the shell out of it I went for the safe guard. I was looking down at the gun and everything happened at one time. The table she started getting up time the shell came out. The table came towards me, or the chair hit the wall behind me there. I heard that scraping of the chair and she was, I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye and she was up on the edge of the table getting up leaning over and that's the last time before the gun exploded that I saw her until she [219 Va. 720] was coming away from the refrigerator."

Additionally, Compton said: "She was always a little stumblingly or slow getting up with her arthritis . . . She knocked she pushed the table around as she came and I was looking down and when the table hit the gun it went off beside my leg." Continuing, the defendant stated: "The gun slipped off my leg I just grabbed at it I was looking at the safety 4 and when I was looking down to get the safety is when it went off. I grabbed it. The gun exploded up at whatever angle it was."

Page 752

The defendant testified that after the "gun exploded" he looked up at the ceiling but "it wasn't no hole there. Hattie was coming in from towards the refrigerator. She was falling forward. She was turned sideways to me I couldn't know if she was shot or whether she had got her feet tangled up . . . And I jumped up to grab her to keep her from falling over in the table. And when I did my hand went up it was my left hand and missed her chest and caught her in the face and that's where she was shot at . . . I tried to grab her. I grabbed her with both hands and she still slipped away from me and went on the floor".

After the shooting the defendant telephoned the operator and asked for help; went to the bathroom to wash the blood from his hands; and phoned Mrs. Compton. He told her what had happened and asked that she come to the trailer or call someone. Compton testified that after making the call to his former wife, he "walked to the door and stood and looked a minute and I couldn't stand what I was looking at so I cut the light off, I guess". Defendant locked his trailer and then went to the Airport Sunoco Station, arriving there about 8 p. m.

Eugene Street, the operator of the station, testified that Compton tried to get in touch with his former wife, and that he asked Street to call the sheriff's office. He said the defendant paced the floor, was nervous and made the statement that "he had blowed his girlfriend's head off with a shotgun" but that "he said it was a accident, he said he didn't know the gun was loaded or anything". Street said he asked Compton what he was doing with a gun but the defendant made no comment. According to Street, the defendant said that he and Mrs. Ratliff "were setting there, and he said they [219 Va. 721] was having a drink, and he said he had the gun laying on the table there, and he said he picked it up, and that he didn't realize it was loaded, and he said that it just went off; it was just a accident".

Alvin M. Talley, a deputy sheriff, saw the defendant at the Airport Sunoco Station about 8:50 p. m. He said that defendant was crying at the time and did not want to talk about the shooting. However, Talley said that at one point Compton did say, "God said (d)on't taketh what you can't giveth back", and that the defendant also said, "Oh God, why did I have to do it" and "Oh why did it have to happen to me". 5 Additionally Compton repeatedly said "It was an accident and I did not mean to kill her".

The homicide was investigated by Deputy Sheriff D. A. Collins and other Pittsylvania County officers. Collins testified that they entered the trailer about 9:30 p. m. on January 29, 1977, and found the victim's body lying partly beneath a table in the dining area of the mobile home. He found a 16-gauge Remington shotgun with its magazine open. Two spent 16-gauge shotgun shells were found in the trailer. Collins observed a hole, which he estimated to be at a 45o angle, in the ceiling of the trailer. 6 Near the hole was an indenture apparently made by a round object. Collins observed blood on the refrigerator and a large spot of brains at the bottom of the refrigerator. He saw blood and brains throughout the dining and kitchen area. Collins noticed that a chair closest to the body was "slid away" from the table and that the chair directly across from the table was also "slid away". Two other chairs were closer to the table. Four to six pellets from the gun were found in the cabinet area near the refrigerator. Two waddings from the spent shotgun shells were also found. Collins noted blood on the back of one chair but none on the seat. Two large spots of blood were found underneath the table near the head of the victim. Collins said that there "was two (2) telephone books, placed under her (Mrs. Ratliff's) head. Her head was lying on them". In the bathroom he found

Page 753

bloodstains on a towel as well as bloodstains on the sink. On the day following the homicide Collins found a loaded, red 16-gauge shotgun shell (which he had not noticed before) partly underneath the refrigerator.

[219 Va. 722] The Commonwealth established through Cleon C. Mauer, a Forensic Scientist, that the gun used by the defendant was in good operating condition and that its safety was functioning properly. Mauer testified that the two spent shotgun shells had contained number one buck metal pellets and that both were fired by defendant's shotgun. He observed that the powder burns around the hole in the ceiling indicated that the gun, when fired, was approximately three to four feet distant from the ceiling. Mauer estimated the angle of the hole in the ceiling to have been approximately 25o and said that the hole was consistent with one made by a shotgun blast. He said that the other indentation in the ceiling was, in his opinion, made by...

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