State v. Harris

Decision Date11 May 1992
Citation839 S.W.2d 54
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee, Appellee, v. Edward Leroy HARRIS, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Charles W. Burson, Attorney General & Reporter, Jerry Lynn Smith, Deputy Atty. Gen., C. Anthony Daughtrey, Asst. Atty. Gen., Nashville, Counsel on Appeal, Al Schmutzer, Jr., Dist. Atty. Gen., and Richard Vance, Asst. Atty. Gen., Sevierville, Trial Counsel, for appellee.

Charles S. Sexton, Ogle, Wallace & Sexton, Sevierville, Trial and Appellate Counsel, William H. Goddard, deceased, Trial Counsel, A. Benjamin Strand, Jr. Strand & Goddard, Dandridge, Counsel on Appeal, for defendant-appellant.


DROWOTA, Justice.

The Defendant, Edward Leroy Harris, alias "Tattoo Eddie," was found guilty by a Sevier County jury of the murders of Melissa Suttles Hill and Troy Dale Valentine on the evening of Saturday, September 13, 1986. The jury found three aggravating circumstances, T.C.A. § 39-2-203(i)(2), (5), and (7), 1 and sentenced the Defendant to death. Counsel for the Defendant, in an abundance of caution due to the severity of the case, have raised 52 errors in a 283 page brief. We have carefully considered all of Defendant's assignments of error; and, for the reasons that follow, a majority of the Court affirm Defendant's guilt and his sentence of death. Two members of this Court, finding error in both the guilt and sentencing phases of this case, would reverse and remand for a new trial.

The victims were both employees of the Rocky Top Village Inn in Gatlinburg. Twenty-one-year-old Melissa Hill was a desk clerk and Troy Valentine was a night security guard. Their bodies were discovered in a room in the motel the night of September 13, 1986. The motel's main office was located on Airport Road and a separate smaller office was on Reagan Drive. On the evening of the murders, Robert Bennett was working in the main office and Melissa Hill had the 3-11 p.m. shift and was working alone in the Reagan Drive office. Bennett last talked to Hill at approximately 7:30 to 8:00 p.m. He telephoned her shortly after 10:00 p.m. and received no answer. However, her husband, a dispatcher with the police department, had talked to her at approximately 10:30 p.m. When Bennett received no answer between 10:30 and 10:45 p.m., he asked Troy Valentine, the security guard, to investigate. The 36-year-old Valentine was unarmed, but carried a police-type flashlight.

Melissa Hill's husband called her again at approximately 11:00 p.m. and received no answer. Bennett, not hearing from Troy Valentine or Melissa Hill, became concerned and left the Airport Road office and went to the Reagan Drive office about 11:30 p.m. He noticed that the lights were on in the office and in the two-bedroom suite next to the office. He looked through the motel room's window and saw the body of Valentine lying on the floor and immediately called the police.

When the Gatlinburg police arrived, they found the bodies of Valentine and Hill in the motel suite. Valentine was lying on his back on the kitchen floor and Hill was lying on her back in a prone position leaning against the bed and the wall. It was determined that $499.00 had been taken in a robbery of the motel and Hill's purse was missing.

Dr. Cleland Blake, a forensic pathologist, went to the scene of the murders during the early morning hours of September 14. He saw a flashlight, which was still burning, and a handcuff attached to Valentine's left wrist. Valentine was lying in a pool of blood that spread 15 to 18 inches away from his body. Hill had massive amounts of blood around her neck and her shirt was heavily soaked in blood from her neck to her waist. There was blood on her bluejeans and on the carpet.

Dr. Blake's autopsy revealed that Melissa Hill had been shot at close range in the top left side of her head with a small caliber bullet. She had been stabbed 18 times. The fatal injury was a deep thrust wound across her neck that had cut the trachea and the neck's major blood vessels and had chipped the spinal column. The wound, described by Dr. Blake as "very savage," had been made by working the knife in and out three times. Hill had also suffered potentially fatal wounds to the heart and the lungs. Dr. Blake opined that she had been stabbed before she had been shot. She had a defensive slash wound on her right palm and three superficial wounds on the back of the neck. Intense, discolored bruises on her left wrist indicated to Dr. Blake that something had "constricted around the wrist" and that she had yanked her hand hard against a metal surface, such as a handcuff.

The autopsy of Troy Valentine revealed several stab wounds on his chest and back and lacerations to the back of his head. He suffered a deep stab wound into the bone of the jaw and a large stab wound that went into his neck. A laceration on the top of his head was inflicted by a round object of about an inch and a half to two inches in diameter, which was consistent with his flashlight. He had a gunshot entry wound between his eyes. Death was caused by either the gunshot wound or the stab wound in his neck. Dr. Blake opined that Valentine was first struck on the top of the head and rendered unconscious, then shot, then stabbed. Valentine and Hill each had a deep neck wound with features of sharp, sawtooth markings from a knife with a serrated edge.

An envelope marked "Please give to a policeman" was found on September 16, 1986, in a phone booth near the Maggie Valley, North Carolina, police station. Inside the envelope was a letter and a small knife given to Hill by her husband that she normally kept in her purse. The letter, which was read into the record, asked for forgiveness "for killing those two people in Gatlinburg" and expressed its author's remorse. The author explained he "was just wanting the money" and had intended to leave the two victims handcuffed in the room. When, however, the guard tried to take the writer's gun, "Joe seen him" and hit the guard with the light. According to the letter, Joe then "went crazy, cut them up," and forced the writer to shoot the victims. The author of the letter admitted he had shot the guard between the eyes but hoped that he had missed the woman. He was afraid that Joe would have killed him if he had not done what he said. He hoped that the victims had no children and he remarked that he could not sleep and was sorry it happened. He was returning the woman's knife because "it might mean something to someone."

Joseph DeModica's testimony was crucial to the State's case. He testified that he, Harris, and transvestite Rufus Doby (also known as Ashley Silvers) met in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in late August 1986. They drove to Daytona, Florida, and then to Georgia, where Kimberly Pelley, Harris's girlfriend, joined them. The four then traveled to Knoxville, where DeModica had worked as a male stripper at a bar called The Pepper Tree. DeModica thought he and Harris could obtain jobs as male strippers; upon arriving in Knoxville they went to The Pepper Tree, where DeModica borrowed money from a friend for the purpose of obtaining a motel room for the night.

On Monday the week of the murders, the foursome (Harris, Pelley, DeModica and Silvers) went to the Knoxville residence of Tracey Clark, a friend of DeModica. With Clark's permission, they slept in the car in her driveway. The group also spent Friday night in Knoxville at the apartment of Tim Farmer, another of DeModica's friends. Harris and DeModica indicated to Farmer that they intended to return to Gatlinburg on Saturday and would not be performing that night at The Pepper Tree. On the afternoon of Saturday, September 13, Harris, Pelley, DeModica, and Silvers left Farmer's apartment. Later that day in Dandridge, they tried to sell a leather coat, a mink coat, and a radio they had stolen from Farmer to Johnnie Shultz, another of DeModica's acquaintances. She refused to purchase the merchandise, believing it to be stolen. They did sell the radio at a service station and the leather coat at a bar.

The testimony of DeModica, Tracey Clark, Tim Farmer, and Jeff Tulle, Farmer's neighbor, showed that while in Knoxville Harris carried two knives, a lock-blade knife in a leather sheath on his belt and a large hunting knife with a serrated edge. Farmer testified that Harris and DeModica indicated to him that they had a gun in the Toyota. Farmer had also seen a pair of handcuffs hanging on the rear view mirror of the Toyota. Farmer related how Harris had told him about a friend of his who liked to get people high, handcuff them to trees, and do obscene things to them.

DeModica's testimony was the only direct evidence of the circumstances of the murders. He told how on September 13, the foursome drove through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and on to the Laurel Falls area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After they walked to the falls, they returned to Gatlinburg, where Harris suggested they rent two motel rooms for the night. DeModica admitted that he "knew something was going to happen." The group drove to the Rocky Top Village Inn. Kimberly Pelley got out of the car and went into the office and came out with Melissa Hill, who accompanied her into the motel room next to the office. The Defendant, Harris, then got out of the car and followed Pelley into the room. The three next came out of the room and went back into the office. Hill and Pelley went behind the desk. There was "a little commotion," after which the three returned to the adjoining motel room. DeModica, who was standing in the parking lot with Silvers, saw a knife in Pelley's hand as they returned to the motel room. DeModica was unable to see into the room; however, he heard "a couple of noises, like a couple of bumps," and a loud scream and a muffled scream. A security guard drove up in a golf cart and went directly to the office. When the guard started for the room, Harris...

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