Puckett v. State

Decision Date25 March 1999
Docket NumberNo. 96-DP-00867-SCT.,96-DP-00867-SCT.
Citation737 So.2d 322
PartiesLarry Matthew PUCKETT v. STATE of Mississippi.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Michael Adelman, Hattiesburg, Attorney for Appellant.

Office of the Attorney General by Leslie S. Lee, Attorney for Appellee.

EN BANC.

SMITH, Justice, for the Court:

s 1. Larry Matthew Puckett was indicted during the January 1996 term of the Circuit Court of Forrest County, Mississippi, for the capital murder of Rhonda Hatten Griffis on October 14, 1995, while engaged in the commission of the crime of sexual battery in violation of Miss.Code Ann. § 97-3-19(2)(e)(1994 & Supp.1998). Venue was transferred from the Forrest County Circuit Court to the Circuit Court for the First Judicial District of Harrison County, Mississippi. A jury was empaneled on July 29-30, 1996, and on August 2, 1996, the jury returned a unanimous verdict finding Puckett guilty of capital murder. Thereafter, the jury heard evidence and arguments in aggravation and mitigation of the sentence to be imposed. On August 5, 1996, the jury returned a verdict imposing the death sentence. The trial judge sentenced Puckett to death by lethal injection and set an execution date of September 13, 1996. Puckett's Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict or in the Alternative Motion for New Trial, as well as his supplemental Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict or in the Alternative Motion for New Trial, were denied, and his execution stayed pending appeal on August 9, 1996.

s 2. This Court has considered all issues raised by Puckett and with the lone exception of Issue III, they are all without merit. Because the trial court did not conduct a proper hearing, we remand for the limited purpose of conducting a hearing as mandated in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986), and our precedent case Hatten v. State, 628 So.2d 294, 298 (Miss.1993).

STATEMENT OF FACTS

s 3. On October 14, 1995, shortly before 5:00 p.m., Mrs. Rhonda Hatten Griffis, age 28, was found lying in a large pool of blood next to the couch in the living room of her home on 198 Sunrise Road, Petal, Mississippi. Mrs. Griffis was found wearing a t-shirt, and the only clothing on the lower part of her body was around her left foot. She had several gashes on the back of her head. There were other injuries to Mrs. Griffis' head, back, and chest, including a deep laceration and three to four hesitation marks to the neck. She was also bleeding from her vagina. She had several defensive wounds on her hands, arms, and elbows. Mrs. Griffis died as a result of the injuries; the cause of death was cranial cerebral trauma, secondary to blunt force trauma. A wooden stick or club covered with blood was recovered outside the residence.

s 4. Rhonda's mother, Nancy Hatten, lived next door, roughly 150-175 feet from the Griffis' trailer. On the day of the murder, Mrs. Hatten helped Rhonda's boys, Justin, age 7, and Jeffrey, age 5, put up Halloween decorations in the yard. Rhonda was not feeling well that day, suffering from a headache and bad sinus problems. Later that afternoon, Mrs. Hatten was in her front yard when she heard a "scream and a thud" come from the Griffis' trailer. Mrs. Hatten then ran home and telephoned the trailer. The phone rang four or five times, but there was no answer. Mrs. Hatten hung up and dialed again, but there was still no answer. She then immediately went to the trailer.

s 5. As Mrs. Hatten neared the trailer, she saw David Griffis, Rhonda's husband, and their two boys driving up to the trailer. David had been hauling pine straw all day and was returning with his last load. A blue truck was parked in the vacant lot beside the residence. Nancy entered the trailer door at the kitchen/dining room area and called for Rhonda but there was no answer. Puckett came from the hallway into the kitchen/dining area and raised a club back and started towards Nancy. As Nancy backed away from Puckett, Jeffrey entered the house followed closely by David. Justin was still outside. Nancy then took the children, ran to her house, locked the boys in the bathroom, and called 911. This 911 call was received by the 911 system at 5:01:15 p.m. and answered by the 911 operator at 5:01:20 p.m. At 5:01:41 p.m., Nancy was placed on hold, as 911 received a call from the Griffis' trailer. Mrs. Hatten identified State's Exhibit Number 3 as the club that Puckett had in his hand in the trailer.

s 6. The Griffis family knew Puckett because he was once employed by David Griffis. While Puckett was employed by David, the employees would gather at the Griffis' house before leaving for work.

s 7. Jeffrey Griffis testified that when he entered the home, he saw Puckett with a club in his hand and holding on to Mrs. Hatten's shirt. David Griffis testified that when he entered the home, he saw Mrs. Hatten with Puckett standing in front of her with the club in his hand raised over his head. David indicated that Puckett was wearing army-type coveralls. The club had blood and a white substance on it. David asked Puckett what he was doing in his house and Puckett said he had hit a deer on the road and came to get David's help and to use the telephone. David called out for Rhonda but no one answered. However, Puckett told David that Rhonda was down at her mother's house. David asked Puckett about the blood on the club and Puckett indicated that it was blood from the deer. David then dialed 911 from a portable phone that was laying on the counter beside him. This 911 call was received by the 911 system at 5:01:27 p.m. and answered by the 911 operator at 5:01:41 p.m. This (David's) call was terminated at 5:04:42 p.m. At some point, David and Puckett struggled and David got the club from Puckett. David tried to keep Puckett in the trailer until the police arrived. However, Puckett took off running towards the door. As Puckett was running for the door, David swung the club and hit Puckett on the shoulder. Then, as Puckett ran out the door, David threw the club at him. Dr. Michael West testified at trial that the club, State's Exhibit 3, was consistent with the wound pattern found on Puckett's back.

s 8. Once Puckett exited the trailer, David entered the living room and reached for his pistol that was usually on a gun cabinet just to the left of the living room door. However, the pistol was not there. David did not see Rhonda's body lying in the living room at this time. David then ran into the bedroom to retrieve a rifle from the bedroom closet. The bedroom door is straight ahead as you turn towards the cabinet. As David exited the bedroom and re-entered the living room, he then saw Rhonda laying on the floor. He saw that Rhonda was injured and dialed 911 again to inform the police. David's second 911 call was received by the 911 system at 5:05:01 p.m. and was answered by the 911 operator at 5:05:07 p.m. This call was terminated at 5:11:45 p.m. The time between the end of David's first 911 call and the beginning of his second 911 call was 18 seconds. Sheriff's deputies and paramedics arrived within minutes.

s 9. Before David fired Puckett, David considered him to be a decent employee and even wrote a letter of recommendation for Puckett to become an Eagle Scout. Another former employer of Puckett's, Ray Watkins, testified that shortly before Rhonda's murder, a maul handle was broken at his work site. Watkins had the maul handle for several years, between seven (7) and ten (10) years, and believed the maul handle to be State's Exhibit No. 3. Watkins also testified that he had seen the handle in Puckett's truck on several occasions.

s 10. Puckett was seen around 3:30 p.m. the afternoon of the murder at the same house from which David Griffis was collecting pine straw. Puckett's blue 4-wheel drive truck was also seen passing the Griffis' residence at approximately 4:41 p.m.

s 11. Puckett's truck was recovered the next night in a wooded area in Perry County. On October 16, 1995, Puckett was apprehended near his mother's home in Perry County. At the time of his arrest, Puckett nervously commented to his mother that "[t]his is a lot of law enforcement for somebody who just committed a burglary." A duffle bag containing various items including a pair of coveralls was recovered from Puckett at the time of his arrest.

s 12. Puckett did not deny being in the trailer at the time of the murder, but testified that he witnessed David Griffis murder his wife. He indicated that he had originally planned only to burglarize the house in order to find money to pay his truck note. He stated that the idea to burglarize the house just popped into his head at the time he went by the Griffis' house. Puckett testified that he parked his truck in a vacant lot beside the Griffis' trailer and put his coveralls on. Puckett saw Rhonda's car at the trailer, but proceeded to the door anyway and knocked. Puckett said that Rhonda let him in and they began to talk.1 Puckett said that he saw the stick (State's Exhibit No. 3) lying on the living room floor. He stated that he and Rhonda began kissing and he then began acting out his sexual fantasy of undressing a woman while he remained fully clothed. He said that Rhonda then saw her mother approaching the trailer, grabbed her clothes and ran into the bedroom, and told Puckett to get rid of her mother. Puckett said he ran into the dining room area and had picked up the stick and decided to scare Mrs. Hatten away with the club. Puckett further stated that after Mrs. Hatten fled with the children, David accused Rhonda of sleeping with Puckett and began hitting her with the stick that David took from Puckett. After beating his wife, David struggled to keep Puckett in the trailer, but Puckett was able to escape while David was calling 911. At trial, Puckett indicated the whole incident took four or five minutes. Puckett said he hid in the woods for two days because he was afraid of David.

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