Puckett v. State

Decision Date27 May 2004
Docket NumberNo. 2000-DR-01077-SCT.,2000-DR-01077-SCT.
PartiesLarry Matthew PUCKETT v. STATE of Mississippi.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel by Robert Ryan, Louwlynn Vanzetta Williams, attorney for appellant.

Office of the Attorney General by Marvin L. White, Jr., attorney for appellee.


SMITH, Chief Justice, for the Court.

¶ 1. Larry Matthew Puckett (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). Venue was changed on Puckett's motion to the Circuit Court of Harrison County, Mississippi, First Judicial District. A jury was empaneled on July 29-30, 1996. The jury returned a unanimous verdict finding Puckett guilty of capital murder on August 2, 1996, and a verdict imposing a sentence of death in proper form on August 5, 1996.

¶ 2. Puckett's death sentence was set to be carried out on 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 was stayed pending appeal on August 9, 1996. ¶ 3. Puckett raised fifteen claims of error in his automatic direct appeal. This Court found his claims to be without merit, save one, and remanded the case back to the trial court mandating that a hearing be conducted under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). See Puckett v. State, 737 So.2d 322 (Miss.1999)

. The trial court held the required hearing on August 25, 1999, and denied all relief on August 25, 1999. On appeal of that decision, this Court affirmed the denial of relief on the Batson issue, the conviction of capital murder, and the sentence of death. Puckett v. State, 788 So.2d 752 (Miss.2001).

¶ 4. Puckett then petitioned the United States Supreme Court for writ of certiorari in November of 2001. The United States Supreme Court denied the petition on March 3, 2003, and Puckett's petition for rehearing on April 21, 2003. Puckett v. Mississippi, 537 U.S. 1232, 123 S.Ct. 1384, 155 L.Ed.2d 195 (2003); reh'g denied, 538 U.S. 995, 123 S.Ct. 1823, 155 L.Ed.2d 697 (2003).

¶ 5. In the interim of Puckett's petition to the United States Supreme Court, this Court appointed the Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel (MOCPCC) to represent Puckett in his state post-conviction proceedings. Puckett's counsel petitioned this Court for clarification of its August 2002 order, from which this Court issued its opinion on December 12, 2002, granting Puckett 180 days within which to file his petition for post-conviction relief. Puckett v. State, 834 So.2d 676 (Miss.2002).


¶ 6. This Court's opinion on Puckett's direct appeal contains the following facts:

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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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

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