Lane v. State

Decision Date29 May 2020
Docket NumberCR-15-1087
Parties Thomas Robert LANE v. STATE of Alabama
CourtAlabama Court of Criminal Appeals

Randall S. Susskind and John W. Dalton of Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery, for appellant.

Steve Marshall, atty. gen., and Thomas R. Govan, Jr., and Eric M. Palmer, deputy attys. gen., for appellee.

McCOOL, Judge.1

In 2016, Thomas Robert Lane was convicted of two counts of capital murder for intentionally killing his estranged wife Theresa Lane. The murder was made capital because it was committed during a burglary, § 13A-5-40(a)(4), Ala. Code 1975, and because it was committed for pecuniary gain, § 13A-5-40(a)(7), Ala. Code 1975. The jury recommended by a vote of 11-1 that Lane be sentenced to death, and the trial court followed the jury's recommendation and sentenced Lane to death.2

Facts and Procedural History

Lane was first brought to trial in 2006 for the murder of Theresa. See Lane v. State, 80 So. 3d 280 (Ala. Crim. App. 2010). Before that trial, the State filed a motion seeking to disqualify Lane's appointed counsel under Rule 3.7, Ala. R. Prof. Cond., which provides that, subject to limited exceptions, "[a] lawyer shall not act as advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness." Following a hearing on the State's motion, the trial court concluded that Lane's appointed counsel would be a necessary witness for the State and thus disqualified Lane's counsel and appointed new counsel to represent Lane. Lane, 80 So. 3d at 293. Thereafter, Lane was convicted of two counts of capital murder -- murder made capital because it was committed during a burglary, § 13A-5-40(a)(4), and murder made capital because it was committed for pecuniary gain, § 13A-5-40(a)(7). Lane, 80 So. 3d at 283. The jury recommended by a vote of 8-4 that Lane be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, but the trial court overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Lane to death. Id. at 283-84.

On appeal, this Court held that the trial court erred by disqualifying Lane's first appointed counsel and that "the trial court's unjustified removal of ... Lane's counsel violated Lane's Sixth Amendment right to continued representation by his counsel of choice." Lane, 80 So. 3d at 302. In addition, the Court held that "a violation of a criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice constitutes ‘structural error’ that cannot be harmless and that automatically requires reversal." Id. Thus, the Court reversed Lane's convictions and death sentence and remanded the case for a new trial. Id. at 302.

On February 29, 2016, Lane was again brought to trial on the same two charges of capital murder, i.e., capital-murder burglary, § 13A-5-40(a)(4), and capital murder for pecuniary gain, § 13A-5-40(a)(7). The evidence presented at Lane's second trial tended to establish the following facts.

At the time of Theresa's death, Lane and Theresa had separated and were in the process of divorcing, and Theresa was living with her friend, Pelagia Wilson, in Wilson's house. At approximately 7:00 a.m. on October 12, 2003, Theresa finished her shift at the Wal-Mart discount store where she worked, and a coworker who gave Theresa a ride home testified that Theresa arrived at Wilson's house at approximately 7:30 a.m. At approximately 10:00 a.m., Wilson arrived home from work and found Theresa dead in a bathtub. Wilson testified that water was still running from the bathtub faucet when she discovered Theresa's body, that one of the knobs controlling the volume of water was on "[a]ll the way" (R. 1414) and the other was on "[j]ust [a] little bit" (R. 1415), that Theresa's unclothed body was almost completely submerged in water, but that the water was "going down." (R. 1415.) Wilson turned off the water and telephoned emergency 911.

Dr. Leszek Chrostowski, a forensic pathologist, performed an autopsy and concluded that Theresa's body reflected "hallmark[s] of drowning." (R. 2059.) Specifically, Dr. Chrostowski testified that he observed foam in Theresa's mouth and nose, water in Theresa's sphenoid sinuses, and petechial hemorrhaging in Theresa's eyes, which indicated that Theresa had been asphyxiated. Dr. Chrostowski also testified that he observed "multiple bruises and contusions" on Theresa's head, shoulders, chest, arms, and legs (R. 2058), which, according to Dr. Chrostowski, "indicate struggle." (R. 2062.) In fact, Dr. Chrostowski testified, the injuries on Theresa's arms constituted "blunt impact injuries which can be interpreted as defense wounds

." (R. 2069.) Dr. Chrostowski also testified that he observed subdural hemorrhaging in the "occipital region" of Theresa's head, which, according to Dr. Chrostowski, "indicate[d] [the] application of blunt force." (R. 2064.) Thus, given the injuries to Theresa's head and "the contusions by the clavicle ... at the base of the neck" (R. 2065), Dr. Chrostowski testified that it appeared Theresa "hit the bathtub ... with the back of her head. And then she was pushed underneath." (R. 2064.) Based on his observations, Dr. Chrostowski concluded that the cause of Theresa's death was drowning and concluded, "without slightest doubt" (R. 2063), that the drowning was a homicide.

Regarding the events preceding Theresa's death, the evidence tended to establish the following facts. Lane and Theresa, who was a native of the Philippines, married in 1995 after Lane "met [Theresa] on the Internet through a mail-order bride service." (R. 1848.) In June 2003, however, Lane and Theresa separated, and Theresa moved out of the couple's mobile home and moved into Wilson's house; Lane remained in the mobile home. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contacted Ronnie Williams, an attorney, to assist Lane and Theresa in obtaining what was initially an uncontested divorce. However, disagreements subsequently arose between Lane and Theresa regarding the division of marital property, which delayed the divorce, and there was evidence indicating that Lane attempted to coerce Theresa into agreeing to divorce terms that Lane found satisfactory. Specifically, Williams testified that Theresa owned a Nissan truck at that time and that

"the truck was being used by Lane as a wedge or carrot, so to speak, in front of [Theresa]. If she wanted her vehicle, she signed the paperwork. That sort of thing.
"In fact, it got so bad where she would go to work, he would follow her, take the truck, leave her stranded there. Call my office, if your client wants the truck, tell her to sign the papers."

(R. 2011.) There was also evidence indicating that, while the divorce was pending, Lane harassed Theresa by showing up at the Wal-Mart store where she worked; that Theresa would take different routes to work "because [she] didn't know when [Lane] might would try to follow [her]" (R. 1632); that Lane left a threatening voicemail on Theresa's cellular telephone; and that, approximately one week before Theresa was murdered, Lane went to Wilson's house and knocked on the door but that Wilson and Theresa would not open the door because they were "scared." (R. 1411.)

Evidence also indicated that Lane was desperate to have the divorce finalized quickly and that, in an effort to expedite the divorce, he repeatedly contacted Williams to express frustration with the fact that the divorce was being delayed and to urge Williams to prioritize the finalization of the divorce. As to the reason Lane wanted the divorce finalized quickly, Williams testified:

"Well, a couple of times I had conversations with [Lane]. But on one particular occasion he had a photo. He was trying to explain to me why he was in such a great rush to get this matter over with. And he had a photo of a relatively young lady. I thought extremely young. But, at any rate, a young lady that was also from the Philippines. And he was trying to get her to travel here to the United States. And there was some -- some issue he had on timing. That if he didn't do something by a certain period of time it would cost him much more money or something adverse was going to occur. So he was trying to explain to me that he was trying to rush this matter through in order to get this individual here. This was supposedly his new bride."

(R. 2022-23.) Despite Lane's efforts to have the divorce finalized quickly, Theresa refused to agree to the terms Lane proposed, so in September 2003, Williams filed on Theresa's behalf a complaint for divorce, a motion for a temporary restraining order, and an instanter motion for the return of Theresa's truck. A hearing on Theresa's instanter motion was scheduled for October 15, 2003, but the trial of Lane and Theresa's divorce action was not scheduled to occur until January 7, 2004.

On October 3, 2003, despite the fact that Lane and Theresa's divorce was not yet finalized, Lane filed with the United States Immigration Services a petition for alien fiancée in which he identified Lorna Abe, a native of the Philippines, as his fiancée. Evidence at trial established that a person petitioning for an alien fiancée must disclose the petitioner's and fiancée's prior marriages and must provide certified proof of the legal dissolution of those marriages. Although Lane's petition disclosed Lane and Theresa's marriage, Lane could not provide a judgment of divorce because no such judgment existed. Nevertheless, Lane included with his petition a "certificate of divorce" (C. 880) that purportedly acknowledged Lane and Theresa's divorce, but that certificate was neither dated nor signed by the Mobile County circuit clerk. Thus, the United States Immigration Services sent Lane a request seeking proof of the divorce.

There was testimony indicating that, while Lane and Theresa were separated, Lane informed his friends and neighbors that he was making arrangements to marry Abe and that he was frustrated with the delay in finalizing his and Theresa's divorce. Tony...

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