Heidel v. State, 07-KA-59495

Citation587 So.2d 835
Decision Date11 September 1991
Docket NumberNo. 07-KA-59495,07-KA-59495
PartiesJohnie HEIDEL v. STATE of Mississippi.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi

J. Dudley Williams, Aberdeen, for appellant.

Mike C. Moore, Atty. Gen., Deirdre McCrory, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., Jackson, for appellee.


ROBERTSON, Justice, for the Court:


The hour was late, past eleven in the last hour of the last day of the year. "Bobby, I'm going to die tonight," Esther Heidel told her niece's husband. Bobby Roebuck was driving his wife's aunt home after a spat with her husband at a New Year's Eve party. "Esther, that's not so," Bobby replied. Esther repeated, "I'm going to die." It was a momentary reflection and soon passed, but less than three hours later, Johnie Heidel shot and killed his wife, and the question is whether he did so in self-defense or whether his conduct constituted culpable homicide.

A Monroe County jury found Johnie Heidel guilty of manslaughter. On appeal he argues the jury had no authority to reject his story of self-defense. Heidel questions as well the content of the legal rules through which the Court instructed the jury of the law it was to apply en route to its verdict. We find no error on these points, but we do find error in the Court's refusal to allow Heidel to prove his wife's propensity for violence through testimony of a specific attack she is said to have made on him some two weeks earlier.



Esther Greene Heidel was born on October 17, 1925. A few days after her death, her examining pathologist would record she was "five feet, five inches in height ... middle-aged to early elderly appearing, moderately obese." Johnie Heidel was sixty-five at the time of trial. Esther and Johnie had married late in life, and their time together had been less than idyllic. They slept in separate beds in separate rooms. The Heidels' signs were ominous on New Year's Eve afternoon, 1986. Esther

began drinking. That evening the Heidels went to the local VFW to see in the New Year with friends. Before 2:00 a.m. on New Year's Day, 1987, Esther lay on the floor of their home on Highway 8 east of Aberdeen mortally wounded by the shot of a single bullet that entered the upper back part of her head and exited in front of her right ear

When Monroe County Sheriff Frank Patterson arrived at the Heidels' double-wide trailer about a quarter past two in the morning, Johnie Heidel greeted him and immediately told the Sheriff that he had shot his wife in self-defense because she was going to kill him with a knife. Sheriff Patterson went inside and found Esther lying on the floor. Esther's feet were near the bar and her head was facing the window. Blood flowed from her right temple. Esther was wearing a nightgown and was lying on her back. There was a butcher knife lying near her hand, but she was not holding it. She was apparently unconscious, gasping for breath. Ambulance attendants had already arrived and were administering aid preparatory to taking Esther to the hospital emergency room.

All of this was in the dining area, adjacent to the kitchen. A waist-high breakfast/snack bar separated the two rooms. Heidel showed the Sheriff where he says he had been standing at the time of the shooting and where Esther had been. Sheriff Patterson retrieved the .25 caliber automatic model RG 26, serial number U116256, pistol which still had five cartridges in it. He also found one spent shell casing on the floor. The projectile or bullet was found beneath the chair under the west end of the table, lying on the carpet, not embedded at all. The breakfast bar had blood stains underneath the 8" X 10"' overhang at the end. There was blood on the carpet where Esther's head lay.

A few moments later, the ambulance attendants took Esther to the hospital, where she lingered for a while and died on the third of January, 1987.

There is more to the story. In the course of the New Year's Eve festivities at the VFW, the Heidels had found themselves at a table next to one where Catherine Stoddard was seated. The three visited for a time, and Esther Heidel had invited Catherine to come see the Heidels' new trailer home. Esther was proud of how she had fixed the place up. After a while, Johnie asked Catherine to dance. Catherine turned to Esther and asked, "Is it all right?" Esther answered, "Sure, it's fine."

A few minutes later, according to Heidel, "We was doing a fast song ..., kindly [sic] on the edge of the crowd of people." Esther appeared suddenly and by all accounts hit Heidel hard with her purse. "She hauled off and hit me right in the face with it, glasses and all. It knocked me down." Esther later explained, "he was out there dancing with that little whore." Heidel said, "I seen stars" and "was staggerish there for a moment." One witness said he "had blood coming down his face." Heidel admitted he was not badly injured but "was hurt inside," that he "was ashamed, embarrassed" more than anything else.

The VFW immediately evicted Esther. Bouncer Bobby Miller "escorted her to the door." Apparently the club frowns on behavior like Esther's. In any event, Esther left alone and walked in the cold of the night some quarter of a mile to the home of her niece, Ethel Roebuck, and Ethel's husband, Bobby. Twice earlier that evening, Esther had called her niece, asking if Esther would come to the VFW and get her and take her home. Once at the Roebucks' home, Esther talked a bit, explained what had happened, and then Bobby Roebuck agreed to drive her to her home "about eleven or twelve miles" away. When they arrived shortly before midnight, Johnie Heidel was already home, and he appeared at the door and to Esther said, "You're not coming in the house fussing." Roebuck quickly decided the Heidels' troubles were none of his and left.

The .25 caliber pistol becomes important. Heidel says he had never carried it before, but on this New Year's Eve at first thought he should because he would be carrying $3200 in cash, money to pay a man for a garden tiller and to get his central heating hooked up on the day after

New Year's. After some discussion--in the car as he and Esther were about to leave for the VFW--Heidel, on a pretext of checking to see if he had left a cigarette burning, went back inside the home and "laid that gun down on that bar." When he got back home some four hours later, the first thing Heidel did was take the gun and put it up under his bed. "I didn't know--figured she was going to be mad or something when she come in; didn't want that pistol to be laying there."

After Bobby Roebuck had left and the Heidels were inside out of the cold, Esther was mad and fussing and began hurling a string of epithets at Heidel, demanding that he fight her, and calling him a coward when he wouldn't. In time, Esther wore down, and Heidel retired to his room and barricaded the door with a dresser and mirror. He tried to sleep. "I was just kindly leaning up against my pillow. I hadn't ever went to sleep." As he tossed and turned, he remembered he had left his car unlocked and thought he had better attend to it. He dressed and put on his blue jeans. For whatever reason, he retrieved the pistol and put it in his back pocket. "I went out real quietly."

When he stepped back inside, he stated Esther was sitting at the counter. Johnie Heidel says Esther came at him with a knife.

I said, "Esther, I've got a gun in my pocket." I said, "Put the knife down." She lunged at me, and I grabbed her hand. I grabbed her by the elbow ... She kicked me in my groin. It made me so weak I reached for the gun. My hands were slipping, pow, I shot her.


On March 10, 1987, the grand jury of Monroe County returned an indictment charging Johnie Heidel with the murder of his wife. Heidel admitted the shooting, and the case went to trial on June 17, 1987, and was ultimately submitted to the jury on three theories: murder under Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 97-3-19(1)(a) (Supp.1987), manslaughter under Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 97-3-35 (1972), and self-defense or, more properly, justifiable homicide under Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 97-3-15(1)(f) (Supp.1987). The jury found Heidel guilty of manslaughter, and the Circuit Court sentenced him to twelve years imprisonment, with four years suspended. See Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 97-3-25 (1972).

Heidel moved for judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict and, in the alternative, for a new trial. The Circuit Court denied these motions. This appeal has followed.



Heidel argues that the Circuit Court erred when it denied his motion for judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict. Here, Heidel challenges the legal sufficiency of the evidence to undergird his conviction. He claims the evidence was such no fair-minded jury could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and invokes the version of that rule that takes its name from Weathersby v. State, 165 Miss. 207, 147 So. 481 (1933).

Our scope of review is as limited as it is familiar. This Court must consider all the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict with respect to each element of the offense. Fisher v. State, 481 So.2d 203, 212 (Miss.1985); Harveston v. State, 493 So.2d 365, 370 (Miss.1986); Callahan v. State, 419 So.2d 165, 174 (Miss.1982). The credible evidence which is consistent with guilt must be accepted as true, Spikes v. State, 302 So.2d 250, 251 (Miss.1974), and we must give the prosecution the benefit of all favorable inferences which may be reasonably drawn from the evidence. Harveston, 493 So.2d at 370; Hammond v. State, 465 So.2d 1031, 1035 (Miss.1985); Glass v. State, 278 So.2d 384, 386 (Miss.1973). We may reverse only where the evidence is such that reasonable and fair-minded jurors could only find the defendant not guilty. Harveston, 493 So.2d at 370; Fisher, 481 So.2d at 212; Cook v. State, 467 So.2d 203, 208-09 (Miss.1985).

A Weathersby claim demands that we be clear how on appeal we consider material evidence for the...

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