State v. Melson

Decision Date16 August 1982
Citation638 S.W.2d 342
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Hugh W. MELSON, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

George W. Hymers, Dist. Atty. Gen., James G. Woodall and R. C. Stegall, Asst. Dist. Attys. Gen., Franklin Murchison, Sp. Prosecutor, Jackson, William M. Leech, Jr., Atty. Gen., Gordon W. Smith, Asst. Atty. Gen., Nashville, for plaintiff-appellee.

Mary Jo Middlebrooks, William H. Brown, Jackson, for defendant-appellant.


DROWOTA, Justice.

In this case, Hugh W. Melson appeals directly to this Court his conviction of first degree murder and the sentence of death imposed by the jury. He raises numerous issues in this appeal; but, after careful review of the entire record and the law, we find these issues to be without merit. We therefore affirm the conviction and the sentence.

The tragic and shocking killing for which Melson was convicted occurred on April 10, 1980. The victim was Barbara Lawrence, wife of Jack Lawrence, who owned a sizeable farm near Jackson. Melson was the farm foreman and had worked for the Lawrences for years. He had known the family since his boyhood, as his father had also worked for them. Although Mr. Lawrence testified that Melson had had his problems getting along with people, he had been a satisfactory employee and no one had any real complaints about his prior behavior. He had a wife and family and lived on the Lawrence place.


The first issue which we shall address is Melson's challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence on which he was convicted. He argues that the verdict is contrary to the law and the evidence; and that the evidence preponderates in favor of his innocence and against his guilt. Since he stands convicted of this crime, he has lost the presumption of innocence which he carried at trial. State v. Grace, 493 S.W.2d 474, 476 (Tenn.1973). All conflicts in the testimony must be resolved in favor of the State. State v. Hatchett, 560 S.W.2d 627, 630 (Tenn.1978); State v. Townsend, 525 S.W.2d 842, 843 (Tenn.1975). After viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, we must affirm the conviction if any rational trier of fact could have found defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979); TRAP 13(e).

Jack Lawrence testified that in months prior to the killing, too much property (a chemical tank, chain saws, ladders, etc.) had been missing from the farm. Worst of all was theft of gasoline. During winter, Lawrence could not even attempt to keep gasoline at the farm. When the spring of 1980 arrived, and gasoline was again needed for farm work, Lawrence had the switch which operated the gasoline tank moved to a closet inside the house. He called all the farm workers together and told them that a log would be kept of all gasoline being used, even for personal purposes, and even by himself and his sons. He had told Melson that he could put a tank full in his truck every week, but Melson said that he would not need any until "combine time." Lawrence told Melson, then, to remove the gas cans and siphoning hoses from his truck.

Early on the morning in question, Jack Lawrence and his son, Dick, who also lived with his own family on the farm, left home to spend the day fishing. Melson was at the main house to do some plumbing repairs. Mrs. Lawrence was at home, and their maid, Mattie Lewis, arrived at about 7:45. She testified that Melson was working on the hot water heater, which was in the utility room off the kitchen. She was in the den nearby; and at one point, Melson came in, opened the closet where the switch to the gasoline tank was, and went outside. Barbara Lawrence came in, asked who had opened the closet, and squatted down behind the bar. When Melson came back inside and went toward the closet, Mrs. Lawrence stood up, went outside to Dick Lawrence's truck, and returned to the house, telling Melson that he had taken some gas (in cans, in the bed of the truck) for himself. He denied this. She reminded him that her husband had told him that he could fill up once a week, and wrote the amount in the log book as going to Melson. He told her that he didn't want any of her gas and told her not to write it down. They both went outside and had some words. When she came back to the house, she was running, and had tears in her eyes.

A little while later, Mrs. Lawrence telephoned Kimba Lawrence, wife of her son Dick. She asked Kimba to do an errand which she had been planning to do. She stated that she was upset, telling Kimba the reason and the name of the person who had caused her to be upset. She stated that she did not want to leave the house. Kimba went to the Jack Lawrence house at about 9:00 A.M. and saw Mrs. Lawrence.

At about 11:00, Mrs. Lawrence and Jack Lawrence's mother met Kimba at a restaurant for lunch. While they were eating, Mrs. Lawrence told Kimba that the knot was finally leaving her stomach. The elder Mrs. Lawrence was present but did not hear that conversation. After lunch, all three women rode in Mrs. Lawrence's car to look for someone's house, then returned to the restaurant, where Kimba got her own car and went her way.

At about 12:15, Mattie Lewis locked herself out of the house. After walking to the home of another son, Jack Lawrence, Jr., to see where a key might be, she returned to the house and was sitting outside when Melson drove up in his truck. She asked if he had a key, and he responded angrily, asking if she had not "heard Miss Barbara raising hell with him about the gas." "He said that Miss Barbara couldn't tell Mr. Jack and have Mr. Jack coming back there raising hell with him." He also asked Mattie Lewis to tell Mrs. Lawrence that he had their aluminum ladder.

Mrs. Lewis waited another fifteen or twenty minutes, and was driving in her own car down the road, when Barbara Lawrence drove by. They both drove to the home of Jack Lawrence's mother, then went to Barbara's house in her car. After Mrs. Lewis worked for awhile longer, discovering that there still was no hot water, Mrs. Lawrence took her back to her car, and they separated.

Meanwhile, according to Henry Shanklin, a retired farm hand who still lived on the place, Melson arrived at his house to repair the roof at about 1:00. A relative of Shanklin, Jerry Ingram, was also there. Ingram and Shanklin went to work giving shots to and putting rings in the noses of two hogs. When Melson finished on the roof, he helped with the hogs. Ingram then left with his wife, Dora, and Shanklin's daughter.

Shanklin and Melson got into Melson's truck and drove to a store on the main road to buy two quart bottles of beer. When they were almost out to the road, they saw Mrs. Lawrence drive past. Melson said to Shanklin that he was in a world of trouble because Mrs. Barbara Lawrence saw him taking gasoline. Shanklin responded, "ah, you ain't in no trouble," but Melson repeated that he was. Mattie Lewis testified that as she was driving away from the elder Mrs. Lawrence's home, on her way to someone else's house, she saw Melson and a passenger behind her in Melson's truck. The proprietress of the store, Mary Jones, stated that Melson came in and made the purchase at about 2:30, remaining only briefly. When the two arrived back at Shanklin's house, Melson let Shanklin out and drove on, saying that he had to go and do "his other little job."

At about 3:00, Melson returned in his truck to Shanklin's, called out to him, and came inside, where he drank most of his beer. Shanklin said that he was "some different"--he seemed more tired, but not out of breath. Shanklin's daughter and Dora Ingram came back. When Melson heard them approaching, he appeared uneasy, got up, turned around and looked.

A few minutes after 3:00 P.M., the Lawrences' third son Jon, who was a high school student, arrived home. He noticed that the door was unlocked, which was unusual. When he went to the kitchen to get a snack, he discovered his mother dead on the utility room floor. He ran to Kimba Lawrence, who had just arrived at her house nearby, and who called the sheriff's office. Deputies began arriving at about 3:30 and closed off the area where the killing took place. Kimba immediately told the deputies of Mrs. Lawrence's altercation with Melson, and some officers went off in search of him.

They eventually found him sitting inside Shanklin's house at about 4:10 P.M. The officers asked him to come outside, and they told him that they were "investigating an incident." They took him to the Lawrence house in the back seat of their car. When they arrived, there were many people milling about, and there were official cars and an ambulance parked outside. The officers read Melson his Miranda rights, which he affirmatively indicated he understood. Then, one of the officers noticed spots of blood on his clothing, which did not appear dry, darkened or faded; and asked him about it. He said that it had gotten on him when he was "shooting hogs." He was not interrogated further at that time, but was taken to the county jail.

During the entire time, he never inquired what had happened or why he was being held. He never showed surprise, mystification or curiosity. He was quiet and cooperative.

The sheriff's deputies and local medical examiner described the death scene, and pictures and diagrams were introduced into evidence. Mrs. Lawrence was lying face down on the utility room floor with her feet near the kitchen. She was lying in a large pool of blood running from her head through and into the kitchen. There was a great deal of blood splattered around the room, on the floor and several feet up the walls. Particles of brain and skull were on the floor. Mrs. Lawrence upon initial examination was found to have a gaping hole in the back of her skull, through which portions of her brain extruded.

At the hospital, a more complete examination was done. Her skull...

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