Lanham v. Com.

Decision Date25 August 2005
Docket NumberNo. 2003-SC-0268-MR.,2003-SC-0268-MR.
Citation171 S.W.3d 14
PartiesPhillip LANHAM, Appellant, v. COMMONWEALTH of Kentucky, Appellee.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky


Donna L. Boyce, Appellate Branch Manager, Department of Public Advocacy, Frankfort, Counsel for Appellant.

Gregory D. Stumbo, Attorney General, James Havey, Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Appellate Division, Office of Attorney General, Frankfort, Counsel for Appellee.


Appellant, Philip Lanham, was convicted of murdering his wife and tampering with physical evidence of his crime. He was sentenced to life in prison. He claims that the trial court erred in allowing the jury to hear an unedited recording of his confession wherein a police officer repeatedly accused him of lying, in admitting inflammatory entries from the victim's diary, and in refusing to grant him a new trial based on prejudice stemming from the actions of the victim's family in the courtroom. Because we hold that the officer's comments were necessary to provide context for Appellant's response, and because Appellant's other claims that were preserved for our review were not prejudicial, we affirm Appellant's convictions.


Appellant and his wife called 911 several times between October 5 and October 11 2001. During the first call, Appellant claimed that his wife had mental problems and was suicidal, and he asked that an ambulance be sent to take her to the hospital. The 911 dispatcher told Appellant that he would have to pay for the ambulance if his wife refused to go to the hospital. Appellant's wife got on the phone and told the dispatcher that she wanted to go to the hospital, but that she was not sure that she was sick. The dispatcher then told Appellant that he needed to obtain a mental health warrant from the sheriff's office. Appellant declined to do so because he had no one to stay with his wife.

Several days later, Appellant's wife called 911. She stated that her husband was trying to force her out of the house. She then said she would call back and hung up the phone. The dispatcher tried to call back, got no answer, and tried to contact the state police. Appellant's wife then called 911 again, and the dispatcher told her that the sheriff's department would be sending someone to the house. Appellant's wife also said that Appellant was trying to kick down her door, that they had both been drinking all day, and that while Appellant did not have a weapon, there were loaded weapons in the house. A sheriff's deputy arrived at Appellant's house around 11:00 p.m. Both Appellant and his wife were drunk. The deputy later testified that Appellant's wife had no visible injuries and that she refused his offer to take her somewhere else or to call someone to come pick her up. There was another 911 call from Appellant's house later that night, but Appellant's wife called again and said that a sheriff's deputy need not come out to the house.

The next day, two Kentucky State Police Troopers went to Appellant's house to do a "welfare check." Appellant's wife was drunk, and Appellant was cleaning the house. Both Appellant and his wife said they were fine, and neither had any injuries.

Appellant called 911 again on the evening of October 11, 2001. He told the dispatcher that his wife had fallen asleep, that she was barely breathing, and that she looked like she had frozen to death. He also said that he thought she had hypothermia and asked that an ambulance be sent.

Two volunteer firefighters, Shannon Causey and Carl Gadd, and two state police officers, Trooper Mike Ashley and Detective Robert Stephens, responded to Appellant's call. When they entered the house, they noticed that there was blood on the carpet and that two large potted plants had been turned over. The house was warm and smelled of bleach. Appellant's wife was in bed with the blankets pulled up to her neck. She had bruises and lacerations on her face and blood on her mouth. She was not breathing and had no pulse. Appellant's wife was dead.

Appellant showed no emotion when Causey informed him that his wife was dead. Appellant asked Trooper Ashley if she had died of hypothermia. Trooper Ashley said that he did not know how she died, but that she had bruises on her head. Appellant also asked how to go about contacting someone about his wife's life insurance policy. Appellant told the troopers that his wife had gotten drunk the night before, fallen down several times, and then passed out. Appellant said that he also had gotten drunk and passed out. Appellant claimed that when he woke up on the morning of October 11, his wife was on the floor beside him. He put her in bed and cleaned the house. He claims that he decided to call 911 when he noted that she was not getting any better.

Trooper Ashley noticed that Appellant had a cut on his forehead, some small cuts on his hands, some bruises under his right arm and on his side. Appellant's face looked somewhat yellow, but there were no noticeable bruises on it. He also had a large bruise at his collarbone, a scrape on his shin, and an injury to his left foot.

Trooper Stephen conducted a taped interview of Appellant later in the evening. During the interview, Appellant stated that he and his wife split half a case of beer on October 10. He claimed that he fell asleep on the couch and that his wife was still awake at that time. When he awoke the next morning, his wife was passed out on the floor beside him, so he moved her to the bed. Appellant initially said that he knew his wife was dead when he moved her; later he said that he thought she had been asleep. He again admitted to cleaning the house after moving his wife, but stated that he had done so because they had torn the house up while drunk. Appellant also said that his wife had fallen down repeatedly and had hit "corners" because she was so drunk. Later in the interview, Appellant claimed that his wife had frozen to death. He also claimed that he and his wife had not been fighting, and that "everything was a blackout," his memory was fuzzy, and he could not really remember what had happened.

Toxicological testing indicated that Appellant had no alcohol in his blood, but that he had taken valium. A t-shirt, which was partially burned and had a substance that appeared to be blood on it, was later found in the microwave at Appellant's house. A blood stained pillow was also found in the house. Testing showed that the blood on the carpet near the front window was similar to the victim's. Blood similar to Appellant's was found on the pillow, the couch, the carpet in the bedroom, a towel in the washing machine, and the bath mat. Tests of the substance on the t-shirt were inconclusive.

Appellant was indicted for murdering his wife and for tampering with physical evidence. At trial, the taped interview was played and excerpts of Appellant's wife's journal were read to the jury.

The medical examiner testified that an examination of the victim's body revealed a variety of external bruises and contusions. The victim also had small hemorrhages on her face, neck, and inside her lower eyelids, all of which were consistent with smothering, choking, or strangling, and hemorrhages in her scalp, her aorta, and the muscles in her neck. The medical examiner concluded that she had died from asphyxia caused by smothering or suffocation due to compression of the nose and mouth. The medical examiner also found that she had alcohol and valium in her blood.

Appellant moved for a directed verdict of acquittal, which was denied. The jury found Appellant guilty of Murder and Tampering with Physical Evidence and recommended sentences of life in prison and five years. Ten days after trial, Appellant filed a motion to set aside his sentence because the victim's family had been crying when photos of the crime scene were shown and because they had allegedly appeared in court during the sentencing phase wearing buttons with photographs of the victim on them. The trial court denied the motion. Appellant was finally sentenced to life in prison for the murder and five years, to run concurrently, for tampering with physical evidence. He appeals to this Court as a matter of right.1

A. Comments by Detective Stephens During Appellant's Taped Interview

Appellant's first claim of error is that the trial court improperly allowed the Commonwealth to play an unedited version of his audiotaped interrogation. During the last three-fourths of the interrogation, Detective Stephens made repeated statements to Appellant about whether Appellant was telling him the truth. All told, the taped interrogation includes at least fifteen such statements by the detective, including that Appellant had "better start telling the truth," that "the only way out is to tell the truth," that Appellant was "not telling the truth," that the jury would not believe Appellant, and that Appellant was "lying."

Between and in response to the detective's comments, Appellant's story of what happened on the night his wife died shifted repeatedly. For example, Appellant first stated that he only had three beers, but then stated that he had been drunk. He claimed that when he woke up, he knew his wife was dead; but in response to the detective's comments, he then claimed that he thought his wife was asleep. As the interview progressed, Appellant gave details about what allegedly happened that night, e.g., that his wife had received the many marks and bruises on her body from falling down and running into corners because she was so drunk, yet later he claimed that everything from the evening before "was a blackout" and that everything was fuzzy. Near the end of the interview, Appellant repeated his assertion made before the interview started by stating that he thought his wife had "frozen to death." And at the end of the interview, Appellant simply stated: "I really can't remember."

When the taped statement was played to the jury,...

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  • State v. Boggs
    • United States
    • Arizona Supreme Court
    • June 16, 2008 interrogating officers at trial "to the extent that they provide context to a relevant answer by the suspect"); Lanham v. Commonwealth, 171 S.W.3d 14, 27-28 (Ky. 2005); State v. O'Brien, 857 S.W.2d 212, 221-22 (Mo.1993); State v. Demery, 144 Wash.2d 753, 30 P.3d 1278, 1284 (2001) (plural......
  • Ordway v. Commonwealth
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    ...“[I]t is generally improper for a witness to characterize the testimony of another witness as ‘lying’ or otherwise.” Lanham v. Commonwealth, 171 S.W.3d 14, 23 (Ky.2005); see also Moss v. Commonwealth, 949 S.W.2d 579, 583 (Ky.1997) (“A witness should not be required to characterize the testi......
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