State v. Cazes

Decision Date14 February 1994
Citation875 S.W.2d 253
CourtTennessee Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Victor James CAZES, Defendant-Appellant.

James V. Ball, Dwight Duncan, Memphis, for defendant-appellant.

Charles W. Burson, Atty. Gen. and Reporter, Merrilyn Feirman, Asst. Atty. Gen., Nashville, James C. Beasley, Jr., Asst. Dist. Atty. Gen., Memphis, for plaintiff-appellee.



In this capital case, the defendant, Victor James Cazes, was convicted of first-degree felony murder in the perpetration of a rape, aggravated rape, and first-degree burglary. In the sentencing hearing, the jury found three aggravating circumstances: (1) that the defendant was previously convicted of one or more violent felonies; (2) that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel in that it involved torture or depravity of mind; and (3) that the murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in committing a felony. Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-2-203(i)(2), (5), and (7) (1982). 1 The jury found that there were no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to outweigh the aggravating circumstances and sentenced the defendant to death by electrocution. The defendant was also sentenced to twenty-five years and six years, respectively, for the aggravated rape and first-degree burglary.

On appeal, the defendant raises numerous issues for our review which involve alleged errors occurring during both the guilt and sentencing phases of trial. We have carefully considered the defendant's contentions as to errors occurring during the guilt phase and have decided that none have merit. We therefore, affirm the defendant's convictions.

As to the alleged errors occurring during the sentencing phase, we conclude that only one has merit--that application of the aggravating circumstance set forth in Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-2-203(i)(7), the murder occurred while the defendant was engaged in committing a felony, is invalid. That is so because it essentially duplicates the elements of the offense of first-degree felony murder and does not narrow the population of death-eligible felony murder defendants, as required of an aggravating circumstance under the Tennessee and United States Constitutions. 2

After carefully reviewing the record, however, we conclude that the submission of the invalid felony murder aggravating circumstance for jury consideration in this case is harmless error beyond a reasonable doubt. We, therefore, affirm the defendant's sentence of death.


The State's proof introduced at the guilt phase of trial demonstrated that on Sunday morning, April 24, 1988, the body of Gladys Skinner, an older woman 3 who lived alone, was found in her home in the Frayser area of Memphis. She had last been seen alive late Saturday night by Ben Harris, a friend who brought her home from a card game. After checking Ms. Skinner's house to make sure everything was "safe and secure," Harris left around 12:10 a.m.

The next morning, because her telephone was busy each time they called, Gladys Skinner's daughter and grandson went to her house to check on her. When they arrived, they noticed that a front window screen had been removed, that the window was broken, that blood was on the window blinds, and that the doors to the house were locked. The grandson and a neighbor entered the house through the front window and found Gladys Skinner's body lying beneath some bedcovers on the bedroom floor, between the bed and the wall. The wall next to the bed was spattered with blood as were several pictures from the wall that lay broken on the floor. Blood also stained the floor and the fitted sheet on the bed. While the bedroom had been ransacked, nothing of value was missing from the house.

Gladys Skinner's nude body was lying face down, her knees underneath her with her buttocks "jacked up off the floor" and her legs spread apart. Scrape marks were found on her inner legs and vagina. Her right breast had been bitten and her left breast was scraped. Dilation of the vagina and rectum demonstrated penetration at or after the time of death; however, no sperm were found. Numerous marks and bruises were found on her body, including defensive wounds to her arms and hands, and a large bruise on her back that the proof indicated could have been caused by a fist.

The Shelby County medical examiner testified that the victim's death was caused by skull injuries that were inflicted by multiple blows to the head with a blunt instrument, like a welder's chipping hammer. According to the medical examiner and a forensic anthropologist who examined the skull, the number of blows had ranged from eight to fifteen and the skull had been "virtually shattered" by the force of the blows. Their proof showed that one or more of these injuries would have caused death within minutes to an hour, but the victim would not necessarily have lost consciousness immediately. A forensic serologist's testimony indicated that the assault may have continued for some time. The serologist testified that some blows may have been struck after the blood from some of the wounds had begun clotting, and that it takes three to fifteen minutes for blood to clot outside the body.

At the time of the murder, the defendant, Victor Cazes, a welder, worked sporadically as a handyman at an automotive repair garage owned by Michael Lucas, Gladys Skinner's step-grandchild. Before the murder, Cazes had been to Gladys Skinner's house two or three times to work on her car. On Saturday night, April 23, 1988, Cazes attended a birthday cookout at Lucas's home, which was a few blocks from Skinner's house. He left the gathering alone around 10 or 11 p.m.

Circumstantial evidence tied the defendant, Victor Cazes, to the offense. His finger and palm prints were found on the front window screen and frame. Two of his fingerprints were lifted from a light bulb beside the back door and fresh pry marks were found on the backdoor. Gladys Skinner routinely left this back light on at night, and it was on when Ben Harris left her house shortly after midnight Sunday morning. When her body was found, the light was off and the bulb was loose in its socket, as if it had been unscrewed.

Michael Lucas testified that Victor Cazes owned two or three chipping hammers, which Lucas described as blunt instruments made entirely of steel with a point on one end, a chisel flat on the other end, and a coil-wired handle. A forensic anthropologist testified that a pattern of depressions located in the involved portion of the victim's skull were consistent with ridges on the striking surface of a particular welder's chipping hammer owned by Cazes. The hammer had been crafted into a metal knick-knack by Cazes after the crime and given to a friend's mother. The forensic serologist also testified that a transfer blood stain on the victim's bedsheet was caused by contact with a wet, bloody object which was consistent with the size and shape of this same chipping hammer and another like it that Cazes had left at the home of his friend's mother.

Dr. Richard Souviron, a forensic odontologist, testified that, based upon his comparison of the bite marks on Gladys Skinner's breast with molds and models of Cazes' teeth, he had concluded to a reasonable degree of dental certainty that Cazes' teeth had made the bite marks on the victim's body at or about the time of her death. Another forensic odontologist, Dr. Harry Mincer, testified that the defendant Cazes could have made the bite marks on the victim. Two women who had engaged in sexual intercourse with Cazes testified that he had also bitten them, and that the victim's body position was one he preferred during sex.

The defendant presented no proof.

Based on this evidence in the guilt phase, the jury found the defendant, Victor Cazes, guilty of first-degree felony murder in the perpetration of a rape, and also guilty of aggravated rape and first-degree burglary.

In the sentencing phase of the trial, the State relied upon the evidence presented during the guilt phase and also introduced records of the defendant's previous convictions in Shelby County, Tennessee, in February 1990 for "assault to murder first degree with bodily injury" and for aggravated rape.

In mitigation, the defendant introduced medical records from the period of his incarceration in the Shelby County Jail to show that he had required medical treatment on several occasions as a result of fights, and that he had been placed on suicide watch twice while incarcerated. An acquaintance testified that the defendant was a heavy user of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, and that he sometimes could not remember what he had done while he was intoxicated.

The defendant and two of his brothers testified about his background. One of twelve children, the defendant had been unable to control his urination until he was twenty. He testified that his father had beaten him when he was young. One brother described the defendant as "hot-tempered" and "always fighting." The defendant said that he fought because other people would tease him when he wet on himself. In the seventh grade, after being arrested for truancy, the defendant set fire to his jail cell. He underwent a psychiatric examination and was sent to reform school, where the fights continued. After his release from reform school, the defendant married twice. He has one child from his second marriage. The defendant had worked for a substantial wage as a welder in Louisiana, and a brother described him as a "hard-working man." The defendant testified he began drinking after his first divorce and admitted using various drugs and flying into rages.

As to the crime itself, the defendant testified that on Saturday night, April 23, 1988, he was "full of it" and "well on [his] way" to being drunk when he left the cookout at Michael Lucas's home. After leaving the cookout, he drank a bottle of Jim...

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    • May 2, 1994 the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the nature of the crime and character of the defendant. See State v. Cazes, 875 S.W.2d 253 (Tenn.1994); State v. House, 743 S.W.2d 141 (Tenn.1987); State v. McNish, 727 S.W.2d 490 (Tenn.1987); and State v. King, 718 S.W.2d 241 The di......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Navigating expert reliability: are criminal standards of certainty being left on the dock?
    • United States
    • Albany Law Review Vol. 64 No. 1, September 2000
    • September 22, 2000
    ...(Ark. 1993); State v. Hodgson, 512 N.W.2d 95, 98 (Minn. 1994); State v Timmendequas, 737 A.2d 55, 11314 (N.J. 1999) and State v. Cazes, 875 S.W.2d 253, 263 (Tenn. 1994). Cazes, 875 S.W.2d at 263, contained testimony on the timing of the bite, as did People v. Gallo, 632 N.E.2d 99, 102 (Ill.......

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