State Of Tenn. v. James

Decision Date24 June 2010
Citation315 S.W.3d 440
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee v. Ralphelle JAMES.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

May 5, 2010 Session.



Benjamin L. McGowan, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Ralphelle James.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General & Reporter; Michael E. Moore, Solicitor General; Leslie E. Price, Assistant Attorney General; William H. Cox, III, District Attorney General; and Boyd Patterson and C. Matthew Rogers, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.


GARY R. WADE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which JANICE M. HOLDER, C.J., CORNELIA A. CLARK, WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., and SHARON G. LEE, JJ., joined.

The defendant, a Range I offender, was found guilty of public intoxication, theft of property over $1,000, and aggravated burglary. The trial court imposed concurrent sentences of thirty days for the misdemeanor and four years for the felony theft; because the six-year sentence for aggravated burglary is to be served consecutively, the effective sentence is ten years. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. This Court granted the defendant's application for permission to appeal to consider the propriety of instructions to the jury permitting inferences of both theft and burglary from the possession of recently stolen property. A second issue is whether the trial court erred by failing to grant a motion for judgment of acquittal as to the charge of aggravated burglary for insufficient evidence. As his final issue, the de- fendant contends that the trial court erred by allowing the State to further examine a defense witness after jurors had submitted questions pursuant to rule. Because the instructions were proper, the evidence was sufficient to support the verdict on the burglary charge, and the procedure utilized for juror questions was compliant with the rule, the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is affirmed.

Factual and Procedural History

At 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. on July 3, 2007, the victim, Maxine Bailey, who lived alone in a two-story residence on Glenwood Drive in Chattanooga, awoke to find that her laptop computer was missing. Her car keys and $100 cash had been taken from her pocket-book. When she looked outside, she discovered that her white 1998 Toyota RAV4 had been stolen. The title to the vehicle was in the glove compartment. Apparently, sometime after 10:30 p.m. on the evening before, a burglar had gained access through a window in a rarely used first story room. When Chattanooga Police Detective Jeff Bryden investigated, he examined the exterior of the residence, including the window that had been opened. No latent fingerprints were found. The detective entered the vehicle identification number into the National Crime Information Center database and reported the serial number of the computer to the police department's "pawn unit." Neither the computer nor the cash was ever recovered.

Sometime during the regular business hours of TitleMax, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on the same day the burglary was reported, Ralphelle James (the "Defendant") applied for a cash loan of $2,500, offering the stolen Toyota as collateral. A man, who identified himself as Darrell Goodlow and who claimed that he shared a residence with the Defendant, was present and jointly applied for the loan. Hand writing on the back of the title that the Defendant presented to Twanda Lyons, the TitleMax assistant manager, indicated that he had purchased the vehicle from the victim for $1,200 on May 10, 2007, almost two months before the burglary. Before approving the loan, Ms. Lyons received proof of identity from the Defendant and verified both his address and his employment. Further, she required the Defendant to apply for a new certificate of title with the Hamilton County Clerk's office, which closed at 4:30 p.m. Because the price listed on the title was less than seventy-five percent of the estimated $3,200 value, the Defendant, while at the clerk's office, had to explain by affidavit why the sale price was so low. The Defendant described himself as "a family friend" of the victim even though he did not, in truth, know her. A signature purporting to be that of the victim appeared on the affidavit. The content of the affidavit included an oath verifying its accuracy under penalty of perjury. Later in the day, when the Defendant returned to TitleMax with his application for a title, the loan was closed. On July 6, some three days after the application for new title, the clerk's office received notice that the car had been stolen.

On July 10, one week after the loan transaction, Chattanooga Police Officer-John Patter-son, who had a description of the stolen car, observed the Defendant driving a white Toyota RAV4 within a mile of the victim's residence. The officer-followed the Defendant for about half a block until he drove into an apartment complex par-king lot, parked the vehicle, and then walked out of sight. After determining that the tags were in the name of the Defendant, Officer Patterson, still suspicious because the car matched the description of the victim's Toyota, recorded the vehicle identification number and confirmed by computer that the car had been stolen. When the officer found the Defendant only a short distance away, the Defendant smelled of alcohol, had an unsteady gait, and appeared to be intoxicated.

After being arrested, handcuffed, and advised of his rights, the Defendant claimed to the officer that he had legitimately purchased the car. He explained that, on July 3, he had paid $1,200 cash for the vehicle to a woman claiming to be "Ms. Bailey." He was unable to immediately provide more specific information to the officer as to the time and place of the purchase. Later, at the preliminary hearing, the Defendant testified that the woman had "flagged [him] down" during daylight hours at the corner of Main and Dodds Streets and asked him if he wanted to buy a car. The Defendant stated that the woman, who appeared to be under the influence of drugs, was approximately five feet two inches tall and blond with blue eyes. He testified that he gave the woman $1,200 cash and she signed the certificate of title in his presence.

Although the Defendant did not testify at trial, his girlfriend for over five years, Kathryn Williams, appeared as a defense witness. She testified that the Defendant lived with her and her parents on German-town Road in Chattanooga at the time of the burglary. She claimed that he had arrived at their apartment between midnight and 1 a.m. on July 3, 2007, and stated that later that morning, she drove the Defendant to a location on Main Street. Ms. Williams stated that when the Defendant returned to her residence between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. the following morning, July 4, he informed her that he had received "a blessing," having purchased a car from a woman on Main Street for $1,200. She also testified that Darrell Goodlow was the name of her mother and explained that because they were together all day on July 3, her mother could not have been with the Defendant at the time of the TitleMax loan closing. Ms. Williams, who first saw the vehicle on July 4, one day after the title transfer, stated that the Defendant was gainfully employed, was always paid in cash, and did not maintain a bank account.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned verdicts of guilt for public intoxication, 1 theft of property valued at $1,000 or more, and aggravated burglary. The trial court imposed an aggregate sentence of ten years. On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed each of the convictions.

In the application for permission to appeal to this Court, the Defendant first contended that the trial court erred by providing instructions that the jury could permissibly infer theft by the possession of recently stolen property and, upon determining that the Defendant had committed the theft, could also infer that he had committed a burglary. Secondly, the Defendant argued that the trial court should have granted a judgment of acquittal on the charge of aggravated burglary based upon insufficient evidence, contending that the State had failed to exclude the equally plausible hypothesis that he was merely in possession of stolen property and was not the burglar. As his final issue, the Defendant questioned the procedure used by the trial court while it permitted witnesses to be asked questions written by the jurors. The primary reasons we granted permission to appeal were to consider the propriety of the instructions relating to recently stolen property and to determine whether the evidence, entirely circumstantial as to the aggravated burglary, was sufficient to support the verdict.

I. Jury Instructions

[I-7] Preliminarily, the trial court has the duty to provide a "complete charge of the law applicable to the facts of a case." State v. Harbison, 704 S.W.2d 314, 319 (Tenn.1986); see also Tenn. R.Crim. P. 30(d)(2). As to the scope of appellate review, "pattern jury instructions are not entitled to any particular deference." State v. Rimmer, 250 S.W.3d 12, 30 (Tenn. 2008). "Jury instructions must be reviewed in their entirety. Phrases may not be examined in isolation." Id. at 31 (citations omitted). Trial courts are not limited to the mere recitation of the pattern instructions. State v. Went, 844 S.W.2d 144, 151 (Tenn.1992). A charge "is erroneous if it fails to fairly submit the legal issues or if it misleads the jury as to the applicable law." State v. Hodges, 944 S.W.2d 346, 352 (Tenn.1997). In order to determine whether a conviction should be reversed on the basis of an erroneous instruction to the jury, this Court "must consider 'whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process.' " Rimmer, 250 S.W.3d at 31 (quoting Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 147, 94 S.Ct. 396, 38 L.Ed.2d 368 (1973)).2

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