Rickman v. Dutton

Decision Date25 April 1994
Docket NumberNo. 3:85-0256.,3:85-0256.
Citation854 F. Supp. 1305
PartiesRonald Eugene RICKMAN v. Michael DUTTON, Warden, Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Tennessee


Henry Alan Martin, William P. Redick, Paul R. Bottei, Nashville, TN, for petitioner.

Glenn Richard Pruden, C. Mark Fowler, Nashville, TN, for respondent.


JOHN T. NIXON, Chief Judge.

Pending before the Court is petitioner Ronald Eugene Rickman's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 211), filed on March 10, 1994, to which respondent Michael Dutton "the State" filed a Response and Cross-Motion for Partial Summary Judgment to Petitioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 224) on March 23, 1994. On April 1, 1994, petitioner filed a Reply to State's Response to Petitioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 236); and a Motion to Strike Respondent's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 235). On April 11, 1994, the Court heard Oral Argument from the parties on petitioner's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. In accordance with the reasoning set forth below, the Court hereby grants petitioner's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.


William Edward Groseclose hired petitioner Ronald Eugene Rickman and Phillip Michael Britt to murder his wife, Deborah Lee Groseclose, in June, 1977. (State v. Groseclose & Rickman, 615 S.W.2d 142, 144-45 (Tenn.1981).) Mrs. Groseclose was subsequently murdered and her body was discovered in the trunk of her automobile on July 4, 1977. (Id. at 146.) After a trial in the Criminal Court of Shelby County, Tennessee, in February, 1978, petitioner was convicted of first degree murder for his role in the death of Mrs. Groseclose.1 (Id. at 144.)

Between March 1 and March 3, 1978, a sentencing hearing was conducted. (Groseclose, 615 S.W.2d at 144.) At sentencing, the jury was instructed that it could impose a death sentence upon petitioner if it unanimously found one or more statutory aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. (Tr., Attach. Doc. No. 81, at 2448.) The court instructed the jury it could find as a statutory aggravating circumstance that "the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel in that it involved torture or depravity of mind." (Id. at 2447.) The jury was further instructed:

"Heinous" means extremely wicked or shockingly evil. "Atrocious" means outrageously wicked and vile. "Cruel" means designed to inflick sic a high degree of pain, utter indifference to, or enjoyment of, the suffering of others, pitiless.
Id. The jury was instructed to render its decision by weighing all aggravating circumstances found against any mitigating circumstances. (Id. at 2448.)

Upon the instructions provided by the trial court, the jury sentenced petitioner to death. (Tr., Attach. Doc. No. 81, at 2450.) The jury based the death sentence on its finding of the following statutory aggravating circumstances:

1. The defendant committed the murder for remuneration. 2. The murder was especially heinous in that it involved depravity of mind. 3. The murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of rape, robbery and kidnapping.


Petitioner challenged the "heinous, atrocious, or cruel" instruction as unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. (Groseclose, 615 S.W.2d at 150-51.) The Tennessee Supreme Court rejected petitioner's challenge and affirmed the death sentence. (Id.) On March 5, 1985, petitioner filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in federal court. (Doc. No. 5.)

On March 10, 1994, petitioner filed the instant Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 211.) Petitioner requests that this Court grant partial summary judgment on petitioner's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus and vacate petitioner's death sentence on the grounds that it was based on an unconstitutional aggravating factor. (Id.) Respondent objects to petitioner's motion, arguing that the aggravating factor at issue is not unconstitutionally vague. (Resp't's Resp., Doc. No. 224.) In the alternative, respondent argues that any vagueness in the instruction was properly cured by the Tennessee Supreme Court. (Id.)


Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides in part that summary judgment "shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

The Advisory Committee for the Federal Rules has noted that "the very mission of the summary judgment procedure is to pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial." Advisory Committee Notes on Rule 56, Federal Civil Judicial Procedure and Rules (West Ed.1990).

An alleged factual dispute existing between the parties is not sufficient to defeat a properly supported summary judgment motion; there must be a genuine issue of material fact. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The substantive law involved in the case will underscore which facts are material, and only disputes over outcome determinative facts will bar a grant of summary judgment. Id., 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. at 2510.

While the moving party bears the initial burden of proof for its motion, the party that opposes the motion has the burden to come forth with sufficient proof to support its claim, particularly when that party has had an opportunity to conduct discovery. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). It is true, however, that "in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must construe the evidence in its most favorable light in favor of the party opposing the motion and against the movant. Further, the papers supporting the movant are closely scrutinized, whereas the opponent's are indulgently treated." Bohn Aluminum & Brass Corp. v. Storm King Corp., 303 F.2d 425, 427 (6th Cir.1962) (citations omitted).

To determine if a summary judgment motion should be granted, the court should use the standard it would apply to a motion for a directed verdict under Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250, 106 S.Ct. at 2511. The court must determine that a reasonable jury would be unable to return a verdict for the non-moving party in order to enter summary judgment. Id., 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. at 2511. Thus, "where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no `genuine issue for trial.'" Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1478 (6th Cir.1989) (citations omitted), reh'g denied, (6th Cir. May 25, 1990).


Petitioner Ronald Eugene Rickman requests that the Court grant partial summary judgment on the grounds that the jury considered an aggravating circumstance which was unconstitutionally vague in its decision to sentence petitioner to death.

It is well-settled that "the penalty of death may not be imposed under sentencing procedures that create a substantial risk that the punishment will be inflicted in an arbitrary and capricious manner." Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420, 427, 100 S.Ct. 1759, 1764, 64 L.Ed.2d 398 (1980). See also Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 188, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 2932, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976); Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 313, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 2763, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972). A capital sentencing scheme must "provide a `meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which the penalty is imposed ...' and must channel the sentencer's discretion by `clear and objective standards' that provide `specific and detailed guidance,' and that `make rationally reviewable the process for imposing a sentence of death.'" Godfrey, 446 U.S. at 427-28, 100 S.Ct. at 1764-65 (citations omitted).

Accordingly, when a federal court reviews a state court's application of an individual statutory aggravating or mitigating circumstance in a specific case, the court "must first determine whether the statutory language defining the circumstance is itself too vague to provide any guidance to the sentencer." Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639, 654, 110 S.Ct. 3047, 3057, 111 L.Ed.2d 511 (1990). A statutory aggravating circumstance is unconstitutionally vague "if it fails to furnish principled guidance for the choice between death and a lesser penalty." Richmond v. Lewis, 506 U.S. ___, ___, 113 S.Ct. 528, 534, 121 L.Ed.2d 411 (1992). Notably, when a jury is the sentencing body "it is essential that the jurors be properly instructed regarding all facets of the sentencing process." Walton, 497 U.S. at 653, 110 S.Ct. at 3057. In a "weighing" state, where aggravating and mitigating circumstances are balanced against each other, "it is constitutional error for the sentencer to give weight to an unconstitutionally vague aggravating factor, even if other, valid aggravating factors obtain." Lewis, 506 U.S. at ___, 113 S.Ct. at 534.

If a statutory aggravating circumstance is unconstitutionally vague, a federal court must "determine whether the state courts have further defined the vague terms." Walton, 497 U.S. at 654, 110 S.Ct. at 3057. If the state courts have done so, the federal court must then determine whether the definitions are constitutionally sufficient, such that they "provide some guidance to the sentencer." Id. A state appellate court may thus cure the taint caused by reliance on an unconstitutionally vague aggravating circumstance by adopting an adequate narrowing construction. Lewis, 506 U.S. at ___, 113 S.Ct. at 534.

Under Tennessee's capital sentencing scheme, a jury at a sentencing hearing is required to weigh certain statutory aggravating factors against any mitigating factors. See State v. Dicks, 615 S.W.2d 126, 131 (Te...

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  • State v. Hines
    • United States
    • Tennessee Supreme Court
    • September 5, 1995
    ...We note, however, that in the two cases cited by the defendant, Houston v. Dutton, 50 F.3d 381 (6th Cir.1995), and Rickman v. Dutton, 854 F.Supp. 1305 (M.D.Tenn.1994), the trials were conducted prior to the release of State v. Williams, 690 S.W.2d 517 (Tenn.1985), and the sentencing juries ......
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    ...for summary judgment with respect to this claim. C. Alleged Defects in the Jury Instructions As the Court noted in Rickman v. Dutton, 854 F.Supp. 1305, 1310-12 (M.D.Tenn.1994), the Tennessee Code creates in the Defendant a protected liberty interest in having a jury impose his death sentenc......
  • Alley v. Bell
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    ...claim II.4 (Petition, ¶ 27(i)). 39. Petitioner also cites to Houston v. Dutton, 50 F.3d 381 (6th Cir.1995), Rickman v. Dutton, 854 F.Supp. 1305 (M.D.Tenn.1994), and various other circuit court opinions. As already noted, however, under amended § 2254, the "cynosure of federal review" is whe......
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