Puckett v. Epps, Civil Action No. 2:04CV302HSO.

Citation615 F.Supp.2d 494
Decision Date30 March 2009
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 2:04CV302HSO.
PartiesLarry Matthew PUCKETT, Petitioner v. Christopher B. EPPS, Commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections and Lawrence Kelly, Superintendent, Mississippi State Penitentiary, Respondents.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Mississippi

Sheryl M. Bey, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, Jackson, MS, Keir M. Weyble-PHV, Blume, Weyble & Lominack, LLC, Columbia, SC, for Petitioner.

Marvin L. White, Jr., Office of the Attorney General, Jackson, MS, for Respondents.




Larry Matthew Puckett was convicted of the capital murder, while in the commission of sexual battery, of Rhonda Hatten Griffis. Puckett was sentenced to death by the Circuit Court of Forrest County on August 5, 1996. On direct appeal the Mississippi Supreme Court remanded the case to Forrest County for a hearing on whether the jury selection process had unconstitutionally discriminated against black jurors, pursuant to Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). Puckett v. State, 737 So.2d 322 (Miss.1999). The court denied relief on every other issue. The Circuit Court held a hearing on that issue and denied relief, after which the case returned to the Mississippi Supreme Court. On its second review of the Batson question, that court also denied relief. Puckett v. State, 788 So.2d 752 (Miss.2001). Puckett petitioned the court for post-conviction relief, but that request was denied. Puckett v. State, 879 So.2d 920 (Miss.2004). Puckett filed his habeas petition with this Court on April 28, 2005, advancing seven grounds for relief.


Rhonda Hatten Griffis's husband found her near death, in her home in the Sunrise Community of Forrest County, Mississippi, on October 14, 1995. She had been severely beaten, and she died a short time later. One paramedic who treated her at the scene noted a large amount of blood coming from a large laceration to her neck, "pretty much from ear to ear . . . ." He also observed a large amount of blood coming from a "large crushing-type injury" to the back of Rhonda's head, "with gray matter, brain matter." Additionally, there was blood coming from her vagina, and she was dressed only in a blood-stained shirt, although some other clothing was wrapped around her left foot. Rhonda had no pulse by that time, but she was still breathing, although her respiration was described as "minimal." Apparently, that ceased while she was being transported to the hospital, and the paramedic treating her testified, "[W]e had to breathe for her . . . ." The doctor who examined Rhonda at the hospital also noted bruising on her hands, face, and ribs. Attempts to resuscitate her failed, and she was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Dr. Stephen Hayne, who performed the autopsy on Rhonda, testified that the cause of death was cranial cerebral trauma, secondary to blunt force trauma. Dr. Hayne discovered a multitude of injuries to Rhonda's body, including defensive wounds on her arms and hands. There were numerous lacerations on her head and face, which were consistent with being struck by a hard, dense object with a rounded edge. Rhonda also suffered five slash wounds to her neck, none of which would have been lethal. Dr. Hayne found lacerations at the opening of Rhonda's vaginal vault, as well as bruising within the vault that indicated penetration by a blunt object.

On the day that Rhonda was murdered, her husband, David, took their two boys with him to gather pine straw that was being given to him by Joel Holder, a neighbor who lived about five miles away. David operated a landscaping business, and he planned to use the pine straw for that purpose. David had made several trips that day to gather the straw and return it to his home. The boys went with him on the last trip. Another neighbor testified that he saw David and his boys at about 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. Joel's wife, Becky Holder, testified that David and his boys were at the Holders' for approximately an hour, and that they departed close to 5:00 p.m. She also testified that, at about 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, she saw Puckett pull into her father-in-law's driveway, about 300 yards away. Her father-in-law had parked a truck near the road with a "For Sale" sign on a roll bar in the bed of the truck, and she walked down to the road to talk to Puckett about it.

At the time of the murder, Larry Matthew Puckett, who goes by "Matthew" or "Matt," was eighteen years old. He had worked for David Griffis in his landscaping business until about six months before the murder. David had fired him after a woman from a subdivision in which they were working complained that Puckett had followed her on a walking trail. After he was terminated, Puckett worked at different odd jobs. He had enlisted in the Navy and was to report for basic training in November.

One of the men Puckett worked for was Mark Hicks, an agent with the Mississippi Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Hicks was driving home on the afternoon of the murder and saw Puckett's truck near Rhonda's home at about 4:40 p.m. Rhonda's mother, Nancy Hatten, lived on the same property as Rhonda and David, in a house about 150 to 175 feet from their trailer. Hatten was in her front yard when she heard a scream and a thud coming from the trailer. She went inside her house to call Rhonda, but got no answer. Hatten started walking toward Rhonda's trailer, and, when she was almost there, she saw David and the two children pulling into the driveway.

Hatten went inside the trailer and was immediately confronted by Puckett, who raised a "club" and started toward her. As Hatten backed away from him, David and the children came through the door. Hatten hurried the children to her house and called 911. Records of that call show that it was placed at 5:01:15 p.m., and it was answered five seconds later. Hatten reported that there was an intruder in her daughter's home and that she had left her son-in-law with him. After about twenty seconds, the call was placed on hold.

After Hatten left, David confronted Puckett and asked why he was in his house. Puckett told David that he had hit a deer on the road and had come for help and to use the telephone. David called for Rhonda, but Puckett told him that she had gone to Hatten's house. David picked up the telephone and called 911. Records show that this call was made at 5:01:27 p.m., or twelve seconds after Hatten's call. It was answered fourteen seconds later, immediately after Hatten's call was placed on hold. David told the dispatcher who answered the call that there was someone in his house who should not be there, and he identified the intruder as Puckett. The call lasted about a minute, after which it was put on hold while the dispatcher went back to Hatten's call. The dispatcher told Hatten that she was talking to a man in the trailer, and Hatten's call ended after about another minute. The dispatcher then went back to David's call, which lasted for another minute.

During the 911 call, David saw that Puckett had a club in his hand, with blood and "white stuff" on it. He asked him about the blood on the club, and Puckett said it was from the deer. David's 911 call ended at 5:04:42 p.m., apparently as the two men struggled. David ultimately wrested the club from Puckett and managed to pin him down briefly, but Puckett escaped from him and ran out the door. As he did, David swung the club and hit Puckett on the shoulder, then he threw it out the door. David ran to the back of his trailer to look for a gun. When he did, he saw Rhonda on the floor in the den, with blood all over her hair. David called 911 again to report her injuries. Records show that this call was made at 5:05:01 p.m., or about nineteen seconds after David's first call ended. Deputies and paramedics arrived minutes later. Crime scene employees arrived shortly thereafter and began processing the scene.

Puckett was apprehended a short distance from his mother's home on Michael Watkins Road, just inside Perry County, Mississippi, two days later. The Sheriff of Forrest County was present at the arrest. He testified that, when Puckett was arrested, he commented to his mother, "This is a lot of law enforcement for somebody who just committed a burglary." Puckett made no further statement, except to explain how he had survived in the woods for two days. He was examined by the coroner, Dr. Michael West, who testified that a wound on Puckett's shoulder was consistent with being struck by the club that was found at the scene.

The clothing that Puckett was wearing at the time he was captured tested negative for human blood. A rape kit was prepared using samples from Puckett and Rhonda. No evidence of semen was found on Rhonda's body. Crime lab personnel examined hairs collected from the carpet in the den where Rhonda was found, as well as from her body, and none of them matched Puckett's.

Puckett testified at trial and admitted to being in David and Rhonda's trailer on the day she was murdered. He claimed, however that he had entered the home only to burglarize it, in order to obtain money to make his next truck payment. According to Puckett, he and Rhonda had a sexual encounter in the spring of that year, but he said that it had never occurred again, nor had either of them communicated with the other. When he knocked at Rhonda's door, he said that she let him in and led him into the den. Puckett stated that he asked Rhonda when David would return, and she told him it would be an hour and a half before he got home. Then Rhonda let him act out a fantasy in which he would undress a woman while he remained clothed. After he undressed Rhonda and they were kissing, she saw her mother coming. Rhonda grabbed her clothes, told Puckett to...

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  • Fletcher v. Stephens
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Texas
    • July 17, 2015
    ...legal theory distinct from that relied upon in the state court, he fails to satisfy the exhaustion requirement."); Puckett v. Epps, 615 F. Supp. 2d 494, 540 (S.D. Miss.2009) aff'd, 641 F.3d 657 (5th Cir. 2011) ("In his post-conviction petition, [Petitioner] cited the Eighth Amendment as a b......

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