People v. Powell

Citation236 Cal.Rptr.3d 316,422 P.3d 973,5 Cal.5th 921
Decision Date13 August 2018
Docket NumberS137730
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Troy Lincoln POWELL, Defendant and Appellant.

R. Clayton Seaman, Jr., under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Lance E. Winters, Assistant Attorney General, Jaime L. Fuster and Pamela C. Hamanaka, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.


A jury convicted defendant Troy Lincoln Powell of the first degree murder of Tammy Epperson ( Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a) )1 and found true three special circumstance allegations: that the murder was committed while defendant was engaged in the commission of rape (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(17)(C) ) and mayhem (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(17)(J) ), and the murder involved the infliction of torture (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(18) ). The jury also convicted defendant of forcible rape (§ 261, subd. (a)(2) ), mayhem (§ 203), and torture (§ 206). In a separate proceeding, the jury found that defendant was sane when he committed the crimes of which he was convicted.

The original jury was unable to reach a verdict in the penalty phase, but a newly-selected jury returned a verdict of death after a second penalty proceeding. Defendant moved for a new trial and for modification of his sentence to life without the possibility of parole. The trial court denied those motions and sentenced defendant to death.2 This appeal is automatic. (§ 1239, subd. (b).) For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment.

A. Guilt Phase Evidence
1. Prosecution evidence

Tammy Epperson was a recovering heroin addict who had recently completed a 12-step treatment program and held a responsible job. Epperson lived on her own at Ballington Plaza, an apartment complex that accepted referrals from substance abuse recovery and inmate rehabilitation programs. The property manager there described Epperson as "a very good tenant.... [S]he took care of herself. She spoke well, she was very proud of what she was doing ..., and she paid rent on time." Her apartment was "very neat, everything in the right places."

Defendant met Epperson in the summer of 2000, while he was residing at Weingart Center in Los Angeles, which provided short-term housing and programs for persons recovering from substance abuse. Defendant had recently been released from prison. Epperson had gone to Weingart Center to visit Timothy Todd, a mutual friend of defendant and Epperson who was working there. Defendant noticed Epperson and later asked Todd to introduce him to her. Epperson was "hesitant" to meet defendant because "she didn't want a relationship" at that time. Not long before, Epperson had broken off a romantic relationship when she discovered that her boyfriend, Ronald Sims, had lapsed back into substance abuse. Todd persisted, however, and Epperson eventually relented. Defendant, Epperson, and Todd soon began spending time together, attending movies, eating out, and driving together in defendant’s truck.

The nature of defendant’s relationship with Epperson was the subject of conflicting testimony. Todd, who was employed as Epperson’s assistant and claimed to be her confidant, did not believe she and defendant were ever romantically involved. Photographs and other evidence, however, suggested that Epperson and defendant eventually spent time together in Todd’s absence. Without question, defendant became obsessed with Epperson, declaring to Todd that he loved her and saying, "If I can't have her, nobody will. I'll kill her and myself." At some point, he became upset that she was "hanging around with other men." Defendant began to appear uninvited at Epperson’s workplace and to call her repeatedly. His behavior eventually became distressing to Epperson. In late October 2000, Todd testified, Epperson broke off relations with defendant, but he continued to call her "constantly" at work.

On a Sunday in early November, defendant was loitering across the street from Epperson’s church after services ended. She spotted him while she was standing outside the church, talking with Sims. Epperson and defendant were both Caucasian, while Sims was African-American. As will be discussed below, the inter-racial character of Epperson’s relationship with Sims may have been an irritant to defendant, who was affiliated with a white supremacist gang while in prison.

Epperson told Sims she had to "deal with this matter now," referring to defendant, and crossed the street to talk to defendant. According to the visitors' log at Ballington Plaza, defendant and Epperson entered the building that morning at 10:45 a.m., and defendant left at 1:26 p.m. The afternoon security guard, however, saw defendant walk through the lobby toward the exit doors between 2:00 and 3:00 that afternoon. Because the building required all guests to be escorted, the guard, who was familiar with Epperson and defendant, stopped defendant and asked him where Epperson was. Defendant replied that she was " ‘in her unit resting.’ " Later that day, defendant twice called Todd to ask him to check on Epperson, saying he had killed her, but Todd did not take defendant seriously.

The police did not enter Epperson’s apartment until the next day, after she failed to appear for work. Epperson’s body was lying on the floor, and her apartment appeared to have been ransacked. Two days later, defendant was arrested at a local motel. Epperson’s keys were found on a table next to the bed in the motel room.

Conclusions about the manner of Epperson’s death were based largely on forensic evidence regarding the condition of her apartment and her body. Officer Ronald Raquel, a criminalist who specialized in blood spatter and sexual assault analysis, examined Epperson’s apartment on the day following the killing. Raquel said Epperson’s body was located in the center of the apartment’s living quarters, between the bed and a chest of drawers. She was wearing a blouse and hooded sweatshirt on the upper portion of her body, but she was nude from the waist down, with a towel covering her lower body. Her brassiere, underneath the clothing, had been pushed up above the nipples of her breasts. The condition of her blood-soaked sweatshirt suggested that her head had been lying on top of it for some time without moving. A pair of jeans and women’s panties were piled at her feet. Blood stains and spatters were found throughout the living quarters and bathroom of the apartment.

Using a large number of photographs, Raquel described the pattern of blood residue in the apartment, explaining the inferences that could be drawn from the size, shape, and location of the stains and spatters. Based on his observations, Raquel inferred that the assault began in the bathroom, where Epperson’s head was slammed against the wall at least six times as her knees gave out, resulting in a descending pattern of smears. She was then carried into the living quarters and placed near the bed in the spot where her body was found. There the attack continued.

Large pieces of a plaster flower vase and a hard lamp, both weighing at least ten pounds prior to breaking apart, were strewn about. Portions of each had been used to strike Epperson’s head repeatedly. She had also been struck with a wooden footstool and, after the footstool broke apart, its individual pieces. The cord of the lamp had been wrapped around her head. Blood stains on the jeans at her feet were consistent with a pair of bloody hands unfastening the jeans and forcing them down. The inner surface of her thighs contained residues consistent with "a bloody object [making] contact with the victim’s thighs after the ... blue jeans were removed." A screwdriver found under Epperson’s arm had blood on the tip and could have been used to inflict a wound

below her eye.

Following the assault, the assailant ransacked the apartment, going through Epperson’s closet, drawers, and other property. Paper towels thrown into the toilet had been used to clean a bloody object, possibly a pair of hands.

Yulai Wang, M.D., a deputy medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Epperson, testified about the condition of her body. Dr. Wang concluded that Epperson died from multiple blunt force injuries. Epperson had bruises and abrasions on the back

of her arm, hands, and her right leg that Wang characterized as "defensive wounds," presumably suffered as Epperson sought to protect herself. Blows to her head had caused a large laceration on her forehead, with an underlying open skull fracture, and there were multiple lacerations on her forehead, both eyes, nose, cheeks, and upper and lower lips, both inside and outside. The wound to her lower lip went "through and through," and the open skull fracture was "deep in through the inside of her head." She also had a seven-inch gaping skull fracture on the left side that ran from the front to the back of her head and extensive fractures to the front and base of her skull. Her nose and both cheekbones were fractured, and her face had been flattened by fractures of the underlying facial bones. Three separate wounds had been cut into the left side of her neck and head, three-quarters of an inch, one and one-half inch, and two and one-half inches long. A similar wound was on the right side of her neck. These wounds

had been inflicted by a sharp, irregular object, such as broken glass, rather than a knife. None of these cuts had severed the carotid artery, an injury that would have been promptly fatal. Hemorrhaging in her eyes and bruises on her neck suggested strangulation. Her brain showed bruising and bleeding in several different places, and an area of bleeding beneath her scalp "almost cover[ed]" the right side of her head. Pieces of glass of different colors were removed from her body, clothing, head, and hair. In a career involving over 2000 autopsies, Dr. Wang had seen only a "very...

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