Lester v. State

Decision Date10 April 1997
Docket NumberNo. 93-DP-00619-SCT,93-DP-00619-SCT
Citation692 So.2d 755
PartiesGerry Lynn LESTER v. STATE of Mississippi.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

George T. Holmes, Jackson, for Appellant.

Michael C. Moore, Atty. Gen., Marvin L. White Jr., Leslie L. Lee, Sp. Asst. Attys. Gen., Jackson, for Appellee.

En Banc.

SULLIVAN, Presiding Justice, for the Court:

During its January 1992 term, the Hinds County Grand Jury indicted Gerry Lynn Lester for the capital murder of his one-year-old daughter Shadai Sanders in the course of felonious child abuse on or about September 29, 1991, in violation of Miss.Code Ann. § 97-3-19(2)(f). Lester's trial began on February 16, 1993, and on February 18, the court granted the prosecution's motion to amend the indictment to include abuse during the time period between June 19, 1991 and September 29, 1991. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of capital murder on February 26. The sentencing phase of the trial was held on March 1, 1993, and the jury voted that the death penalty should be imposed. On March 1, 1993, Circuit Judge William F. Coleman ordered that Lester be put to death by lethal injection on April 12, 1993. Lester filed his motion for a new trial or for J.N.O.V. or for resentencing on March 25, 1993, which was denied by Judge Coleman on May 7, 1993. Aggrieved with the jury's verdict and sentence, Lester filed his appeal to this Court assigning thirty-five separate errors for our review. Because we find reversible error in Issues II, IV, VII, and X, and in subparts E, F, and G of Issue VI, the conviction of capital murder and sentence of death by lethal injection must be reversed, and the case must be remanded for a new trial.

I. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN OVERRULING LESTER'S OBJECTIONS TO VOIR DIRE QUESTIONS BY THE PROSECUTOR WHICH WERE HYPOTHETICAL, DESIGNED TO CONFUSE AND MISLEAD THE JURY OR TO COMMIT THEM TO A VERDICT PRIOR TO TRIAL.

II. LESTER'S CASE MUST BE REVERSED BECAUSE THE TRIAL JUDGE ERRONEOUSLY ALLOWED THE PROSECUTOR TO AMEND THE INDICTMENT.

III. THE TRIAL JUDGE ERRED IN ALLOWING THE PROSECUTORS TO ELICIT IMPROPER OPINIONS FROM EXPERT WITNESSES.

IV. LESTER WAS DEPRIVED OF HIS RIGHT TO EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL, DUE PROCESS AND A FAIR TRIAL BY THE TRIAL JUDGE'S DENIAL OF HIS REQUEST FOR CONTINUANCE FOR ADEQUATE TIME TO PREPARE.

V. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN ADMITTING EVIDENCE OF LESTER'S POST ARREST SILENCE.

VI. THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT OF THE INTRODUCTION OF OTHER OFFENSE AND BAD ACTS EVIDENCE AND THE PROSECUTION'S IMPROPER SUGGESTION THAT THE JURY SHOULD USE THE EVIDENCE TO CONVICT THE DEFENDANT BECAUSE OF HIS BAD CHARACTER CALLS FOR REVERSAL OF BOTH THE GUILT AND PENALTY PHASES OF LESTER'S TRIAL.

VII. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN OVERRULING DEFENDANT'S OBJECTION TO TESTIMONY FROM RUCHELLE SANDERS, THE VICTIM'S MOTHER, ABOUT GERRY LESTER'S ALLEGED ASSAULTS ON RUCHELLE WHILE SHE WAS PREGNANT.

VIII. THE COURT ERRED IN ADMITTING HEARSAY EVIDENCE.

IX. THE COURT ERRED IN ADMITTING INADMISSIBLE OPINION EVIDENCE.

X. THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT OF IRRELEVANT PREJUDICIAL EVIDENCE WARRANTS REVERSAL.

XI. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN NOT ADMITTING THE FULL TEXT OF EXHIBITS E AND F, LETTERS FROM LESTER TO SANDERS.

XII. THE PROSECUTION'S DELIBERATE FAILURE TO PROVIDE DISCOVERY WARRANTS REVERSAL.

XIII. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN OVERRULING LESTER'S OBJECTION TO THE PROSECUTOR'S UNSWORN TESTIMONY THAT HIS OFFICE HAD NOT DENIED LESTER A POLYGRAPH.

XIV. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING INSTRUCTION NUMBER D-9 WHICH EMBODIED A THEORY OF DEFENSE.

XV. THE OVERLAP BETWEEN SECTION 97-3-19(2)(f) AND 97-3-27 GIVES PROSECUTORS AND JURIES UNFETTERED DISCRETION TO IMPOSE EITHER THE DEATH PENALTY OR CONVICT OF MANSLAUGHTER AND VIOLATES THE EIGHTH AMENDMENT AND CORRESPONDING SECTIONS OF THE MISSISSIPPI CONSTITUTION.

XVI. THE INSTRUCTIONS FAIL TO ADEQUATELY INFORM THE JURY OF ITS OPTIONS TO FIND MANSLAUGHTER.

XVII. THE JUDGE COMMITTED REVERSIBLE ERROR IN OVERRULING LESTER'S OBJECTION TO THE JURY INSTRUCTION WHICH OMITTED INTENT FROM THE ELEMENTS OF THE CHARGE ON CHILD ABUSE.

XVIII. THE TRIAL COURT COMMITTED REVERSIBLE ERROR IN REFUSING TO GIVE THE INSTRUCTION REQUESTED BY THE DEFENSE DEFINING CHILD ABUSE AND CHILD NEGLECT.

XIX. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN OVERRULING LESTER'S CHALLENGES FOR CAUSE TO SEVERAL JURORS.

XX. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN SUSTAINING THE PROSECUTION'S CAUSE CHALLENGE TO JUROR NIMOX.

XXI. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN GRANTING THE STATE'S CHALLENGE FOR CAUSE TO JUROR HENRY GREENE.

XXII. THIS CASE MUST BE REVERSED OR REMANDED BECAUSE THE JUDGE DID NOT REQUIRE THE PROSECUTOR TO GIVE REASONS FOR HIS PEREMPTORY CHALLENGES.

XXIII. ADDITIONAL PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT DEPRIVED LESTER OF DUE PROCESS AND A FAIR TRIAL.

XXIV. THE VERDICT OF GUILT IS SUPPORTED BY INSUFFICIENT CREDIBLE EVIDENCE.

XXV. THE PROSECUTION COMMITTED REVERSIBLE ERROR AT SENTENCING BY COMMENTING ON LESTER'S FAILURE TO TESTIFY.

XXVI. INSTRUCTIONS DEFINING "HEINOUS, ATROCIOUS OR

CRUEL" WERE UNCONSTITUTIONALLY VAGUE.

XXVII. THE HAC AGGRAVATOR IS ALSO UNCONSTITUTIONAL AS APPLIED TO LESTER.

XXVIII. THE TRIAL COURT'S ANTI-SYMPATHY INSTRUCTION COUPLED WITH THE DENIAL OF A MERCY INSTRUCTION MEAN THAT LESTER'S SENTENCE MUST BE REVERSED.

XXIX. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN INSTRUCTING THE JURY THAT LESTER WAS REQUIRED TO PROVE THAT THE MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES OUTWEIGHED THE AGGRAVATING IN ORDER TO RECEIVE A LIFE SENTENCE.

XXX. THE COURT ERRED IN GIVING INSTRUCTION SS-1.

XXXI. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING LESTER'S REQUEST FOR AN INSTRUCTION ON THE STATUTORY MITIGATING FACTOR OF EXTREME MENTAL OR EMOTIONAL DISTURBANCE.

XXXII. THE TRIAL COURT SIMILARLY ERRED IN DENYING LESTER'S REQUEST TO INSTRUCT THAT THE JURY COULD CONSIDER HIS LACK OF SIGNIFICANT CRIMINAL HISTORY AS MITIGATION.

XXXIII. THE TRIAL JUDGE ERRED IN GIVING INSTRUCTION S-5 OVER LESTER'S OBJECTION.

XXXIV. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN GIVING INSTRUCTION S-3 WHICH ALLOWED THE JURY TO CONSIDER NON-STATUTORY AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES.

XXXV. THE DEATH PENALTY IS DISPROPORTIONATE IN THIS CASE.

STATEMENT OF THE FACTS

Shadai Sanders was born on September 30, 1990 to her parents, Ruchelle Sanders and Gerry Lester. Ruchelle and Gerry lived together with Shadai and her then six-year-old half brother Kendrick Sanders in a low-income apartment on Martin Luther King Drive that Ruchelle obtained by application. Ruchelle worked at the Interstate Chevron Station on Northside Drive, and since Gerry was unemployed, he stayed at home with the children. Gerry's sister, Brenda, and Gerry's mother, Annie, sometimes took care of Shadai and Kendrick.

When Shadai was approximately eight months old, her lip became cut, bruised, and swollen while Ruchelle was at work and Gerry was taking care of her. Ruchelle asked Gerry how Shadai's lip was injured, and Gerry told her that Shadai had fallen. Gerry told Michelle Martin, Ruchelle's friend and co-worker, that Shadai hurt her lip falling out of bed, but Michelle didn't believe him. Michelle told Ruchelle that she thought Gerry was lying and that Ruchelle should get her baby away from Gerry.

On June 19, 1991, about two or three weeks after Shadai's lip was injured, Gerry called Ruchelle at work and told her that Shadai's leg was broken and that he was taking her to the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC). Dr. Joel Donaldson treated Shadai for a spiral fracture in her femur. Gerry initially gave Dr. Donaldson no explanation for the cause of injury, but later upon questioning Gerry told the doctor that Shadai had caught her leg in the couch. Dr. Donaldson testified at trial that the most likely cause of a spiral fracture in the femur of a child that age is child abuse. This conclusion that the leg break was likely caused by child abuse was supported by the testimony at trial of Dr. Bonnie Woodall, who subsequently treated Shadai on the night of her death, and Dr. Bernard Blumenthal, the pediatric radiologist who analyzed Shadai's x-rays. Defense witness Dr. Steven Timothy Hayne also testified that a spiral fracture Dr. Donaldson and Dr. Blumenthal also agreed that the spiral fracture was inconsistent with Gerry's explanation that Shadai caught her leg in the couch. However, Dr. Hayne testified that Shadai's leg could have been broken in a spiral fracture if her leg were caught in a fixed position and Gerry pulled and twisted her out of the couch. Kendrick testified that on the day that Shadai's leg was broken he came inside from playing and Shadai's leg was stuck in the couch.

suggests child abuse, but is not in and of itself conclusive of abuse. However, based upon all of his knowledge of the case, Dr. Hayne concluded that Shadai's spiral fracture was caused by child abuse.

After treating Shadai for the spiral fracture, Dr. Donaldson contacted the Department of Human Services (DHS) to report his suspicion of child abuse per the hospital routine and Mississippi law in suspected abuse cases. At the hospital Ruchelle talked to Wanda Gillom, a social worker with DHS. Ms. Gillom came to Ruchelle's apartment the next day to speak with Gerry. Ruchelle told Ms. Gillom that she had never seen Gerry abuse Kendrick or Shadai, but she did tell her that after the broken leg, Shadai always cried when left with Gerry. Ms. Gillom instructed Gerry to attend classes on child care, but Gerry never went. Ms. Gillom never came back, never called to check up on Ruchelle and Gerry, and never followed up on her instructions for Gerry to attend the child care classes.

On September 29, 1991, Ruchelle got up at about 9:00 a.m. She fed and dressed Shadai, and woke Gerry up at about 11:00. Then Ruchelle, Gerry, Shadai, and Gerry's brother, Eddie, all went shopping together. Testimony differed as to whether Kendrick went along on the shopping trip. Testimony also differed as to whether the group stopped by Ruchelle's workplace before going shopping. During the shopping trip, Ruchelle would take Shadai into the...

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