State v. Hodges

Decision Date28 April 1997
Citation944 S.W.2d 346
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee, Appellee, v. Henry Eugene HODGES, Appellant.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Brock Mehler, Donald Dawson, Bruce, Weathers, Corley, Dougman & Lyle, Michael E. Terry, Nashville, for Appellant.

Charles W. Burson, Attorney General and Reporter, Kathy Morante, Deputy Attorney General, Victor S. Johnson, III, District Attorney General, Thomas B. Thurman, Renee R. Erb, Assistant District Attorneys General, Nashville, for Appellee.


DROWOTA, Justice.

In this capital case, the trial court accepted pleas of guilty entered by the defendant, Henry Eugene Hodges, to first-degree premeditated murder 1 and especially aggravated robbery. 2 The trial court conducted a capital sentencing hearing to determine the sentence on the conviction for premeditated murder in accordance with Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(1991 Repl. & Supp.1996). In the sentencing hearing, the jury found three aggravating circumstances: (1) "[t]he defendant was previously convicted of one or more felonies, other than the present charge whose statutory elements involve the use of violence to the person;" (2) "[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 (3) "[t]he murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in committing, or was an accomplice in the commission of, or attempting to commit, or fleeing after committing a robbery." Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(2), (i)(5) and (i)(7) (1991 Repl.). Finding that the three 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 the sentence of death raising sixteen 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.), 3 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 November 21, 1996, entered an Order limiting review and setting the cause for oral argument 4 at the February 1997 term of Court in Nashville. See Tenn. S.Ct. R. 12. 5

For the reasons explained below, we have determined that none of the alleged errors affirmatively appear to have affected 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 sentence of death by electrocution is affirmed.


The defendant, Henry Eugene Hodges, entered a guilty plea and was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder. Thereafter, the penalty phase of the trial commenced. The State presented proof of the circumstances of the offense through the testimony of Trina Brown, the defendant's fifteen-year-old girlfriend. Brown testified that one week before the murder she and the twenty-four-year-old defendant, who were living with the defendant's brother in Smyrna, Tennessee, decided to move to Florida. To get money for the move, Hodges, a male homosexual prostitute, told Brown that he would rob and kill the next person who propositioned him. Hodges discussed with Brown how the crimes would be carried out. Hodges repeated these statements on May 14, 1990, the day of this murder.

On the night of May 14, Brown and Hodges went to Centennial Park in Nashville. When the victim, Ronald Bassett, approached, Hodges talked with him, and they left together in the victim's vehicle and went to the victim's residence at 3133A, Parthenon Avenue, across from Centennial Park. Ten or fifteen minutes later, Hodges returned to the park on foot, and along with Brown, drove back to the victim's residence in his own car. Hodges told Brown to lie down in the backseat of the car so no one could see her. When they arrived at the victim's residence, Hodges told Brown to wait in the car. After an unspecified period of time, Hodges returned to the car, wearing gloves, and asked Brown to come into the house. Brown testified that when she arrived, Bassett was lying face down on the bed in his bedroom with a pillow over his head. Hodges had bound his feet together with duct tape and had handcuffed his hands. While Bassett lay helplessly, Brown and the defendant ransacked the house searching for items of value. After obtaining the personal identification number for the victim's automatic teller card, Brown and the defendant "took a break," drank a coke, and discussed whether to kill Bassett. Brown testified that she told Hodges to kill Bassett to prevent their arrest. Hodges then went into the bedroom and, ignoring the victim's pleas not to kill him, strangled Bassett to death with a nylon rope. Brown testified that she heard Bassett moan and make a choking sound and that it took about five minutes for Bassett to die.

In an attempt to remove any fingerprints, the defendant wiped off various items in the residence. After turning the air conditioner in Bassett's bedroom on high to prevent discovery of the body, Hodges and Brown left the victim's residence, taking the victim's automobile and several items of personal property, including jewelry, a gun, and a VCR. After using Bassett's automatic teller card to withdraw the twenty-four-hour maximum of four hundred dollars from his account, the pair returned to the house of the defendant's brother and went to bed. The next day, having learned that the victim's body had been discovered, Brown and the defendant abandoned the victim's car in rural Rutherford County and drove to Georgia in their own car. They were eventually arrested in North Carolina. Items of the victim's personal property were found in their possession at this time. Also, the defendant's fingerprints were found on items inside Bassett's home, and Brown had been photographed withdrawing money with Bassett's automatic teller card.

Testifying for the State at the sentencing hearing, Dr. Charles Harlan, the chief medical examiner for Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County, confirmed that Bassett had died from ligature strangulation. Dr. Harlan opined that Bassett would have remained alive and conscious for at least three and perhaps as long as five minutes during the strangulation. Harlan also found abrasions on the victim's wrists consistent with handcuffs.

The State proved that the defendant had been convicted of armed robbery, attempted kidnaping and robbery in Hamilton County in 1984. The State also established that the defendant had been convicted of murder in Fulton County, Georgia, in July 1990. The record reveals that the Georgia killing occurred when the defendant and Brown arrived in Atlanta after murdering Bassett. Hodges made arrangements with a man to engage in homosexual acts for an agreed price. Hodges accompanied the man to his motel room, but when the man was unable to pay the agreed price, Hodges murdered him.

In mitigation, the defendant testified 6 and also presented the testimony of his mother, his brothers and Dr. Barry Nurcombe, a child psychiatrist. This proof showed that the defendant was the next to youngest of his mother's five sons. His mother and father were not married. His father was actually married to another woman, but engaged in what one of the witnesses described as an "irregular union" with the defendant's mother for eighteen years. The defendant's father abused the defendant's mother and was strict with the defendant's brothers, three of whom were the children of another man. The defendant, however, was his father's favorite and was spoiled. Financial difficulties forced the family to move about frequently, and defendant's father supported the family only sporadically.

The defense introduced proof to show that Hodges seemed normal until he was twelve years old. At that time, he began to associate with older boys, sniff glue and gasoline, be truant from school, and run away from home. He also engaged in sexual activities with his younger brother and attempted sexual activities with a female cousin. He became involved with the juvenile authorities and was confined to a juvenile facility in Chattanooga.

Through his mitigation proof, the defendant attempted to establish that a catalyst and major contributing cause of his delinquent and later criminal behavior was his rape and sexual abuse by a stranger when he was twelve years old. According to the defendant, he accepted a stranger's offer of a ride home when he was playing a short distance from his home on Fessler's Lane in Nashville. Rather than driving Hodges home, the stranger drove Hodges to his home and raped him. Fearing rejection by his homophobic father and driven by guilt the defendant told no one of this incident until he was arrested in 1990.

Dr. Nurcombe testified that, while the defendant suffered from an antisocial personality disorder, low self-esteem, and substance (marijuana) abuse, the killing was motivated by a subconscious desire for revenge for the sexual abuse inflicted on him when he was twelve, coupled with Hodges' fear that his family might discover that he was engaged in homosexual prostitution since Brown had told Hodge's sister-in-law shortly before the killing that he was a homosexual prostitute. The defense also introduced testimony that Brown dominated and manipulated the defendant.

In rebuttal the State called Dr. James Kyser, a forensic psychiatrist, and Dr. Leonard Morgan, a clinical psychologist. Both had examined the defendant and concluded that he suffered from an antisocial personality...

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