State v. Bush

Decision Date07 April 1997
Citation942 S.W.2d 489
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee, Appellee, v. Michael Dean BUSH, Appellant.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Martelia T. Crawford, Cookeville, Richard McGee, Nashville, for appellant.

John Knox Walkup, Attorney General and Reporter, Michael E. Moore, Solicitor General, Gordon W. Smith, Associate Solicitor General, Amy L. Tarkington, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, William Edward Gibson, District Attorney General, Owen G. Burnett, John A. Moore, Lillie Ann Sells, David A. Patterson, Assistant District Attorneys General, Cookeville, for appellee.

OPINION

DROWOTA, Judge.

In this capital case, the defendant, Michael Dean Bush, was convicted of premeditated first degree murder and first degree burglary. 1 In the sentencing hearing, the jury found two aggravating circumstances: (1) "[t]he murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse beyond that necessary to produce death;" and (2) "[t]he murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with or preventing a lawful arrest or prosecution of the defendant or another." Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(5) and (6) (1991). Finding that the two aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury sentenced the defendant to death by electrocution.

On direct appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the defendant challenged both his conviction and sentence, raising nineteen claims of error, each with numerous subparts. After fully considering defendant's claims, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. Thereafter, pursuant to Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-206(a)(1) (1996 Supp.), 2 the case was docketed in this Court.

The defendant raised numerous issues in this Court, but after carefully examining the entire record and the law, including the thorough opinion of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the briefs of the defendant and the State, this Court, on October 14, 1996, entered an Order limiting review to seven issues and setting the cause for oral argument at the January 1997 term of Court in Knoxville. See Tenn. S.Ct. R. 12. 3

For the reasons explained below, we have determined that none of the alleged errors affirmatively appear to have affected the verdict of guilt or the sentence imposed. Moreover, the evidence supports the jury's findings as to aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and the sentence of death is not disproportionate or arbitrary. Accordingly, the defendant's conviction for first degree murder and sentence of death by electrocution are affirmed.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The defendant was convicted of the premeditated murder of Jodie Lefever, a seventy-nine-year-old widow who lived alone in her home in the Silver Point community of Putnam County. 4 The evidence presented at the guilt phase of the trial established that Lefever's body was discovered by a neighbor on August 19, 1988, lying face down on the floor in her den next to the side door of the house. She had been stabbed numerous times. A large amount of blood was on her back, her head and the floor. Blood was also splattered on the door and nearby wall. Two holes of unknown origin were in the wall near Lefever's body.

Investigating officers found a piece of pressure-treated wood on the floor next to the den sofa and another piece of pressure-treated wood behind the television set in the same room. Officers also found drops of blood on a chair in the den, on the utility room floor leading from the den to the kitchen, on the kitchen floor, and on a rug in the hallway leading to the bedroom. One drawer in the bedroom dresser was open. The front door and windows of the house were locked, and there was no sign of forced entry. The house and its furnishings were essentially undisturbed. The only item missing from the house was a butcher knife that was kept in a drawer next to the kitchen sink.

Dr. Gretel Harlan, assistant medical examiner with the State Medical Examiner's Office, testified that Lefever died as a result of being stabbed forty-three times. The wounds extended down the left side of her face, down the back of her neck, across her shoulders, and down her back. They were consistent with wounds inflicted by a butcher knife like that taken from the kitchen. Several of the wounds were fatal and had passed through Lefever's back and penetrated various vital organs and blood vessels. The location of the injuries indicated that Lefever had probably been lying down during the attack. All the wounds had been made while Lefever was alive; but it was impossible to determine the order in which they had been inflicted. Some wounds would have resulted in unconsciousness in three to five minutes. However, if other wounds had been inflicted first, Lefever could have been alive and conscious for twenty to thirty minutes. Because the stab wounds did not damage Lefever's central nervous system, it was possible, according to Dr. Harlan, that Lefever felt the wounds as they were inflicted, a sensation that Dr. Harlan compared to undergoing surgery without anaesthetic. In addition to the stab wounds, there were two small "scrape areas" on the victim's left knee and elbow consistent with a fall onto those parts of her body before collapsing to the ground. Lefever's left collarbone had been bruised either shortly before the stabbing or during the fall. Contusions found around her eyes could likewise have been inflicted before she fell or could have resulted from one of the stab wounds that had penetrated the left eye.

Despite extensive investigation, law enforcement officials had no suspects on September 25, 1988, when Putnam County Sheriff Jerry Abston was notified by his office that eighteen-year-old Michael Dean Bush and his father were at the Sheriff's office and had information regarding Lefever's murder. Lefever had been the best friend of the defendant's grandmother, and Bush had mowed Lefever's lawn and helped her get groceries. In a series of statements recorded at the Cookeville police department and played for the jury at trial, Bush told law enforcement officers that on the afternoon of August 16, 1988, while he was living at his mother-in-law's trailer, he received a telephone call to go to the Silver Point community after dark, if he ever wanted to see his family again. After calling his parents' house and receiving no answer, the defendant concluded something was wrong.

Later that evening, after dark, the defendant instructed his wife to drive him to an area near Lefever's house. When his wife asked him what was going on, he told her that they "needed some money ... and [he] was going to go rob the old woman that lived down there." After his wife dropped him off and left, Bush said he was met by four men wearing black ski masks. One pulled a gun on him and said that they "needed somebody Jodie trusts." Bush said Lefever was on the telephone when he knocked on her side door. After Bush identified himself, Lefever unlocked the door. The men then pushed him inside the house and began to hit Lefever so hard that she fell back and hit the wall with her elbow. One of the men ran through the kitchen and the rest of the house. When the stick being used to beat the victim broke, the men quickly gathered the pieces and handed them to Bush and told him to go outside. A few minutes later the men came out and gave the defendant a knife. The defendant's hand was cut by the blade as he took the knife. The men instructed Bush to "take the stuff and get rid of it" and forget everything he had seen. As Bush was walking to meet his wife, one of the men drove up beside him and said "loose lips sink ships."

Shortly afterward the defendant's wife picked him up. He was crying and had blood all over him. When his wife asked him what had happened, he said, "I killed Jodie." They drove to Center Hill Lake, where he threw the knife and the pieces of the broken stick into the water and washed himself off. Bush then told his wife that he had not killed Lefever but blamed another man, Jackie Maxwell.

On the same day and approximately the same time as Bush was giving his statements to law enforcement officials at the Cookeville police department, his seventeen-year-old wife, Sheila Bush, made several statements to officers at the Putnam County sheriff's office. She testified to the substance of those statements at trial. While most of her story matched that of the defendant's, it was different in one vitally important aspect. Shelia Bush incriminated the defendant as the sole perpetrator of the offense. According to Sheila Bush, on the evening of August 16, 1988, the defendant told her that they needed money and that he knew "a woman he could knock in the head and get some money," but he would not tell Shelia Bush the name of the woman nor the location of her home. The defendant removed a piece of wood from the frame around his wife's bedroom door and directed his wife to drive him to an area in the Silver Point community. Once there, he got out of the car and told her to come back in twenty minutes. After driving to Center Hill Dam, Shelia Bush returned to find the defendant standing in the road. He had his shirt off and was covered with blood. As he got into the car, he excitedly told his wife that he had "killed her." The defendant said he had "stabbed her with a knife" and that he had cut his hand wide open. At the defendant's directions, Sheila Bush drove to a boat ramp near the dam, where the defendant threw his shirt, some pieces of wood, a knife and a pair of sunglasses into the lake. He then washed off the blood that was on him.

The next day, according to Sheila Bush, the defendant told her how he had killed Lefever, how he knocked on the door as the victim spoke on the phone, how she let him in once she recognized him, and how he had struck her in the head with the stick and caused her to fall. The...

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