State v. Compton

CourtSupreme Court of Oregon
Citation39 P.3d 833,333 Ore. 274,333 Or. 274
PartiesSTATE of Oregon, Respondent, v. Jesse Caleb COMPTON, Appellant.
Decision Date07 February 2002

Mary M. Reese, Deputy Public Defender, Salem, argued the cause for appellant. With her on the briefs was David Groom, State Public Defender.

Jennifer Scott Lloyd, Assistant Attorney General, Salem, argued the cause for respondent. With her on the briefs were Hardy Meyers, Attorney General, Michael D. Reynolds, Solicitor General, and Kathleen Cegla, Stacey RJ Guise, and Robert B. Rocklin, Assistant Attorneys General.


This is an automatic and direct review of a judgment of conviction and sentence of death. ORS 138.012(1); ORAP 12.10(1). Defendant seeks reversal of his convictions for aggravated murder, murder by abuse, two counts of sexual penetration in the first degree, and one count of abuse of a corpse in the second degree. In the alternative, defendant asks this court to vacate his sentence of death and to remand the case for resentencing. We affirm the judgment of conviction and the sentence of death.


Because the jury found defendant guilty, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the state. State v. Hayward, 327 Or. 397, 399, 963 P.2d 667 (1998).

Early in 1997, Stella Kiser and her daughter, Tesslynn O'Cull, began living with defendant in defendant's apartment. The child was approximately two-and-one-half years old when Kiser moved in with defendant. Defendant frequently hosted "drug parties" at his apartment, some of which lasted for several days. Defendant frequently prepared methamphetamine for smoking by melting it with a small propane torch. On at least one occasion, defendant held the lighted torch close to his hand to show his friends that he could withstand a great deal of pain.

Soon after Kiser and Tesslynn moved in with defendant, defendant began abusing Tesslynn. Defendant hit her on her buttocks and back with a wooden spoon, a spatula, and a belt. Visitors to the apartment observed defendant slap her in the face, drag her by her hair, force her to stand in the corner for long periods of time, and make her take long, cold baths or showers. Defendant frequently was angry at Tesslynn, and he called her disparaging names. Visitors also observed that defendant and Kiser usually kept Tesslynn in the bedroom during the drug parties, and they could hear the child cry for hours after defendant had been in the bedroom with her. Defendant would not permit others to go into the bedroom to help her. Eventually, defendant and Kiser kept Tesslynn in the bedroom most of the time. When a neighbor complained about the way that defendant treated Tesslynn, defendant told him that he would kill the neighbor and the neighbor's girlfriend if they called the police.

Approximately two months before Tesslynn's death, defendant broke four vertebrae in her back. Sometime thereafter, he forcefully penetrated her vagina with an object and inflicted large, gaping burns on the child's back, buttocks, and genitals using an open flame. Some of those burns became infected, and defendant poured rubbing alcohol into them. He also inflicted smaller round burns on the child's legs. During the two-week period before Tesslynn died, defendant immobilized her 10 to 15 times by placing her hands and feet over her head and tying them together with ropes, cords, or strips of cloth. He left her tied up for eight to ten hours at a time. Within 24-hours preceding the child's death, defendant struck her in the head several times, causing bruising to her brain, and either punched her in the abdomen or stomped on her with his foot, causing severe internal injuries. He also scraped and bruised her abdomen with a fork.

Defendant found Tesslynn dead in the bedroom of the apartment between midnight and 2:00 a.m. on June 14, 1997. Defendant cut Tesslynn loose from her restraints and tried to revive her by giving her CPR. He also struck her in the left side of the chest a few times with his fist, then applied a frayed, live electrical cord to her chest, and splashed her with cold water. He was unable to revive her.

Defendant and Kiser agreed to leave the body in the bedroom while they thought about what to do. Tesslynn's injuries were so extensive that defendant and Kiser feared that they would go to jail if anyone saw the body. Eventually, they decided to bury the body, which they did with the help of defendant's sister. In the days after they buried Tesslynn, defendant and Kiser were happy, playful, and affectionate with one another. They told friends that Tesslynn was with a babysitter or at Kiser's aunt's house and that they were planning to move out of town. They also told friends that they wanted to have a baby boy.

On the evening of June 16, 1997, defendant's sister told the Springfield Police Department that she had helped defendant and Kiser bury Tesslynn's body in the Sweet Home area two days earlier. Early on the morning of June 17, Springfield police officers found the child's body buried in a shallow grave near a logging road in the area that defendant's sister had described. They unearthed the body and arranged for an autopsy. In the grave, they also found, among other things, a piece of cloth that appeared to be torn from a curtain, a strip of gray cloth, a blue braided belt, and a woman's ring with a pink stone in it.

That afternoon, police officers went to defendant's apartment. They advised defendant of his Miranda rights and obtained his permission to enter the apartment and to look around. Most of the apartment was dirty and smelled bad. There were many holes in the walls, which defendant had made by punching the walls when he was angry or by throwing knives.

In subsequent searches of the apartment, the police found drug paraphernalia, drug residue, and a propane torch. They also found a lamp with a cut cord, a pair of pliers with burn residue on it, rubbing alcohol bottles, and white cloths with knots in them. In a search of a dumpster near defendant's apartment, the police found two trash bags from defendant's apartment that contained a Mother's Day card for Kiser, child's clothing, an electrical cord that had been cut and had a frayed end, a blue cloth, a white cloth, and a shoestring with knots in them, and a rope. The cloth and shoestring had hair mixed in with the knots. Some of the cloth that the police found was similar to cloth that had been found in the child's grave.

The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy concluded that Tesslynn had died of shock, and he listed the cause of death as "battered child syndrome."1 Defendant was indicted on six counts of aggravated murder, murder by abuse, first-degree sexual penetration, and second-degree abuse of a corpse. As noted, the jury convicted him of all counts, and he was sentenced to death. On review, defendant raises 35 assignments of error. We analyze defendant's arguments in the context of pretrial issues, guilt-phase issues, and penalty-phase issues.

A. Denial of Demurrer to Count 1

Count 1 of the indictment charged defendant with aggravated murder as follows:

"The defendant, * * * on or about the 14th day of June, 1997, in the county aforesaid, in the course of or as a result of intentional maiming or torture of Tesslynn O'Cull, age three (3) years, did unlawfully and recklessly, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, cause the death of Tesslynn O'Cull, another human being; and defendant * * * previously engaged in a pattern or practice of assault or torture of Tesslynn O'Cull or another child under 14 years of age; contrary to statute and against the peace and dignity of the State of Oregon[.]"

Before trial, defendant filed a demurrer to that charge, contending that ORS 163.095(1)(e) is vague under both the Oregon Constitution and various provisions of the federal constitution. The trial court denied the demurrer.

On review, defendant contends that ORS 163.095(1)(e), either alone or in conjunction with ORS 163.115(1)(c), "is vague as to the mental state required with regard to the result of death when a homicide occurs as a result of maiming or torture[.]" Therefore, he argues, the statute violates Article I, sections 20 (equal privileges and immunities) and 21 (prohibiting ex post facto laws), of the Oregon Constitution, and the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The state responds that defendant's claims were not properly raised by demurrer because they did not in fact raise a vagueness challenge. Instead, those claims raised questions of statutory construction, which is not a matter that can be raised by demurrer.

We analyze defendant's challenge as he has framed it, namely, as a vagueness challenge. The state concedes that a vagueness challenge is a valid basis for a demurrer. See State v. McKenzie, 307 Or. 554, 560, 771 P.2d 264 (1989)

(holding vagueness challenge proper basis for demurrer to indictment). On the merits, the state contends that the statutes defining aggravated murder by abuse are not vague because they clearly provide that the mental state with regard to causing death by abuse is recklessness.

This court has held that Article I, sections 20 and 21, of the Oregon Constitution, require the terms of a criminal statute to be explicit enough "to inform those who are subject to it of what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties." State v. Plowman, 314 Or. 157, 160, 838 P.2d 558 (1992) (quoting State v. Graves, 299 Or. 189, 195, 700 P.2d 244 (1985)). In addition, a criminal statute "must not be so vague as to allow a judge or jury unbridled discretion to decide what conduct to punish." Id. at 161, 838 P.2d 558. To prevail on a facial vagueness challenge, a defendant must show that the statutes creating the crime of aggravated murder...

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