State v. Groseclose

Decision Date17 February 1981
Citation615 S.W.2d 142
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. William Edward GROSECLOSE and Ronald Eugene Rickman, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

William M. Leech, Jr., Atty. Gen. & Reporter, Robert L. Jolley, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., Nashville, for plaintiff-appellee.

Larry D. Woods and Lionel R. Barrett, Jr., Nashville, for defendants-appellants.


HARBISON, Justice.

Appellants William Edward Groseclose and Ronald Eugene Rickman appeal from their convictions of murder in the first degree and a sentence of death pursuant thereto. A codefendant who was tried and convicted with them, Phillip Michael Britt, was sentenced to life imprisonment. His case is not involved in the present appeal.

After careful consideration of the assignments of error made on behalf of appellants and of the entire record, we are of the opinion that the verdict and sentence are sustained by the evidence and that no reversible error was committed at the very lengthy trial out of which these appeals arise.

Appellants were convicted for the murder of Deborah Lee Groseclose on or about June 29, 1977. The victim was the wife of appellant William Edward Groseclose.

Jury selection began in this case on February 13, 1978, and was completed on February 17. After pleas of not guilty by all defendants, trial commenced on February 18, 1978, and was concluded on February 28. The sentencing hearing consumed from March 1 through March 3. None of the defendants testified before the jury at the guilt phase of the hearing. The State presented thirty-nine witnesses during that portion of the trial. The resulting record was voluminous, and there were, of course, some discrepancies and conflicts in the testimony. There was material evidence presented to the jury, however, to support the following statement of the essential facts.

Mr. and Mrs. Groseclose were married in April, 1975. They had been experiencing marital difficulties for some time prior to her death. They had been separated for about two weeks, during a part of which Mr. Groseclose visited his mother in Kingsport, Tennessee. Mr. Groseclose was twenty-nine years of age in June 1977; his wife was twenty-four. He had served in the Navy for several years. Prior to his wife's death he had been employed in the Navy Recruiting Service. It was there that he had become acquainted with several of the other persons involved in the homicide.

Mr. Groseclose was discharged from his employment on June 16, 1977, because of serious irregularities in his enlisting of recruits. His wife was employed as a receptionist for a group of physicians. Shortly after their marriage Mr. Groseclose had obtained a substantial amount of insurance on the life of his wife.

For several weeks prior to the actual homicide, Mr. Groseclose planned the death of the victim. His motives may have been apprehension that she was about to sue him for divorce, desire to obtain the life insurance proceeds, or interest in another woman. There is evidence in the record to suggest all of these as possibilities. In all events, he contacted one of his former recruits, Barton Wayne Mount, in an effort to employ someone to murder Mrs. Groseclose. Mount placed him in touch with his codefendant Britt, a nineteen-year-old boy. Britt contacted his former brother-in-law, appellant Rickman. Ultimately, with the knowledge and participation of Britt and Mount, Rickman agreed to perform the act for a specified and negotiated price. Britt was to share in the proceeds. Groseclose also promised to reward Mount thereafter.

Mount was indicted with the other three defendants. His case, however, was severed and he testified for the State at the trial. His testimony was devastating to all three defendants. Although he was cross-examined at length by counsel for all defendants, his testimony clearly showed that the homicide was committed by Rickman and Britt on behalf of and after being procured by Groseclose.

Also testifying for the State was Pamela Baker Lindsey, who at the time of the homicide was living in an apartment with Rickman and with one Donnie Tatum. Mrs. Lindsey was never indicted in connection with the death of Mrs. Groseclose. In her testimony, she described in detail a meeting between the participants and Mr. Groseclose, as well as the planning and the aftermath of the murder. Shortly after it was committed, she assisted Rickman in shaving his hair, altering his beard, and materially changing his appearance. She and Rickman fled to Oklahoma where Rickman was arrested about one week after the body of Mrs. Groseclose was discovered.

The murder was one of the most atrocious and inhuman conceivable. Although there are different versions and conflicting evidence on the point, it appears that there was a plan for Rickman to accost Mrs. Groseclose on the afternoon of June 28 and to frighten her to the point that she would report to the incident to the police. She was then to be murdered on the next day, the plan being that suspicion would be diverted from her husband by the previous incident. Whether planned or not, this in fact occurred, and Rickman approached Mrs. Groseclose on the parking lot near the place of her employment. When she would not talk with him, he followed her home in another automobile, greatly alarming her. There is no question but that she was frightened and that she did report the incident to the police in the evening of June 28, 1977. She also reported it to other persons, including her husband, apparently having no suspicion of his involvement.

According to plan, Mr. Groseclose left his residence early on the morning of June 29, taking his infant son with him. He left the back door to the residence unlocked, although he had previously supplied a key for use by the murderers in the event they had difficulty obtaining access to the house. Rickman and Britt went to the residence at about 5 or 5:30 in the morning and waited in a workshop near the home until Mr. Groseclose left. They then entered the house. Each had sexual relations with Mrs. Groseclose. They then permitted her to bathe and dress, during which process Rickman advised her that there was a "contract" on her life. According to the phrase used by both Britt and Rickman, the terrified woman "plea bargained" with her attackers and offered to try to get money for them. This offer was refused, and Rickman proceeded to strangle Mrs. Groseclose into unconsciousness. Whether Britt participated in this act or not is unclear from the proof. He said that he did not, although at one point he admitted having held the hands of Mrs. Groseclose briefly while she was struggling with Rickman, who had seized her from behind. In all events, apparently still detecting a pulse after the victim had been rendered unconscious, Rickman stabbed her three or four times in the back near the spinal cord. Thinking their victim to be dead, Rickman and Britt then placed her body in the trunk of her automobile and drove the vehicle to a parking lot adjacent to the main Memphis Public Library. During this trip, Rickman became aware that the victim was not dead, and in a statement later introduced he said that he and Britt could hear her cries for help from the trunk. Britt denied this and said that he could not recall having heard any outcry from the victim.

In all events, the victim was left locked in the trunk of her automobile in the broiling sun from about 9 a. m. on June 29 until her badly decomposed body was discovered therein during the early afternoon of July 4 a period of some five days. Medical testimony revealed that the injuries which had been inflicted on Mrs. Groseclose by Rickman would not have been fatal and that she died from the excessive heat in the trunk of the automobile (systemic hyperthermia).

Mr. Groseclose reported his wife missing during the day of June 29 and went through a pretense of searching for her during the next several days. The perpetrators, Britt and Rickman, met with him and told him that their mission had been accomplished. He had withdrawn funds from a bank account on the night of June 28 in order to make a partial payment to Rickman and was to pay the balance when he collected the proceeds of the insurance policies on his wife.

Rickman and Pamela Lindsey had been living in an apartment rented by one Donnie Tatum. Police began an extensive investigation into this homicide after the ghastly discovery of the victim on July 4. They interviewed Tatum and Mount, and the entire scheme came to light. Within a week after the homicide most of the principal participants were in custody. Tatum gave a detailed statement to the police, which was consistent with that later given by Mrs. Lindsey and by Britt and generally consistent with one also given by Rickman. After a full suppression hearing, the statements of both Britt and Rickman, in redacted form, were admitted into evidence and read to the jury. Later, at the sentencing hearing, their unredacted statements were read in full.

Further discussion of the facts is unnecessary, except as relevant to specific assignments of error. There was overwhelming proof of the guilt of all three of the defendants, and the assignments of error challenging sufficiency of the evidence are overruled.

Also without merit is an assignment challenging the admissibility of two photographs of the body of the victim on the ground of their gruesomeness and prejudicial effect. These were apparently polaroid snapshots, taken at a distance of several feet, and show very little detail, other than the actual location of the body. Their contents do not approach the gruesomeness of the oral testimony given by several eyewitnesses, and they were probative primarily to show the position of the body in the vehicle at the time of its discovery. The photographs were relevant, and their probative value was considerable. We find no...

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