State v. Middleton

Decision Date29 June 1999
Docket NumberNo. 80043,80043
Citation995 S.W.2d 443
PartiesSTATE of Missouri, Respondent, v. John MIDDLETON, Appellant.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

Elizabeth Unger Carlyle, Lee's Summit, for Appellant.

Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Atty. General, John M. Morris, Assistant Attorney General, Jefferson City, for Respondent.


A jury convicted John Middleton of first-degree murder for killing Alfred Pinegar. The jury recommended, and the trial court imposed, a death sentence. Middleton now appeals his conviction and sentence. This Court has exclusive jurisdiction over the appeal because Middleton was sentenced to death. Mo. Const. art. V, section 3. We affirm the judgment.


John Middleton was a user and dealer of methamphetamine. On June 10, 1995, police arrested several people in Harrison County, Missouri, for possession and sale of the drug. Middleton was not one of the people arrested. About ten days after the Harrison County arrests, Middleton told a friend that "the snitches around here are going to start going down." Middleton stated that he had a "hit list" and that Alfred Pinegar was on it. Two days after making these statements, Middleton told the same friend that he was "on his way to Ridgeway, Missouri, to take Alfred Pinegar fishing."

Alfred Pinegar was also a dealer of methamphetamine and was associated with Middleton as a fellow drug dealer. Pinegar lived with his fiance Priscilla Hobbs in Davis City, Iowa, just north of Harrison County, Missouri. On June 23, 1995, the day of Pinegar's murder, Hobbs was driving toward her home in Davis City when she saw Middleton and his girlfriend Maggie Hodges in a white Chevrolet 4x4 pickup traveling in the opposite direction. Hobbs noticed that Hodges was sitting in the middle of the truck seat instead of in the right passenger's seat. When Hobbs reached her home, Pinegar was not there and the yard had been partly mowed, as if Pinegar stopped in the middle of the job. Pinegar habitually carried a twelve-gauge shotgun, and that shotgun and about two hundred dollars were missing from the home.

Around noon that same day, Wesley Booth was working in the sporting goods department of a Wal-Mart store in Bethany, Missouri. He was approached by Hodges, Middleton, and another man, presumably Pinegar. Middleton asked Booth for six boxes of nine-millimeter shells and two boxes of twelve-gauge "double-ought" buckshot. Middleton paid cash for the ammunition. During the entire transaction Middleton was standing at the counter across from Booth.

Middleton, Hodges, and Pinegar left Wal-Mart and drove several miles northeast of Bethany near the town of Ridgeway where they parked in a field. Pinegar got out of the truck and began to run when he saw Middleton raise the twelve-gauge shotgun. Middleton shot Pinegar twice in the back. Middleton then delivered the fatal wound to Pinegar, shooting him in the face. Middleton dumped Pinegar's body over a fence. After committing the murder, Middleton and Hodges went back to the Wal-Mart store in Bethany to return the nine-millimeter ammunition. They did not return the twelve-gauge "double-ought" shotgun shells. Booth walked with Middleton to the sporting goods department, where he exchanged the nine-millimeter shells for ammunition of another caliber. The two men then walked back to the service desk to complete the exchange.

Later that afternoon, Gerald Parkhurst saw Middleton and Hodges standing next to their pickup on the side of a road north of Bethany. Claiming their pickup had broken down, Hodges asked Parkhurst if he would give them a ride. When Parkhurst agreed to give them a ride, Hodges and Middleton transferred five or six firearms to the trunk of Parkhurst's car, including the twelve-gauge shotgun Middleton had used to kill Pinegar. Parkhurst took Hodges and Middleton to Spickard, Missouri, where they unloaded the weapons.

Two days after the murder, John Thomas visited Middleton at his home. Middleton and Thomas discussed possible undercover drug informants, and Middleton stated that "something had to be done about them." Middleton also told Thomas that he had acquired Pinegar's twelve-gauge shotgun and that Pinegar "wouldn't be needing it no more." Thomas drove Middleton to the place were the pickup truck had broken down, helped him remove a defective part, and then Middleton drove the truck away. The next day, on June 26, Pinegar's body was found. At the murder scene, police found a piece of leather fringe, an empty box of twelve-gauge shotgun shells, two expended twelve-gauge shells, a pair of sunglasses with a missing lens, and a small plastic clock with an adhesive square on the back of it.

Later, on September 11, while Middleton was in jail, Middleton told Stallsworth, a fellow inmate, that he killed Pinegar because he was afraid that Pinegar was going to "snitch" on him about his methamphetamine dealing. Middleton described the details of Pinegar's murder. He also told Stallsworth that some fringe was missing from his leather jacket and he was worried that it had been left at the murder scene.

Middleton was charged by information with first-degree murder and armed criminal action on October 18, 1995, in the Circuit Court of Harrison County. The prosecutor later voluntarily withdrew the charge of armed criminal action. Following a change of venue to the Circuit Court of Adair County, the case went to trial on February 24, 1997. Middleton did not testify at his trial and offered no evidence in his defense. The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. In the punishment phase of the trial the state presented, among other things, evidence that Middleton had also murdered two others, Randy Hamilton and Stacey Hodge, as part of his plan to eliminate "snitches." The jury recommended a death sentence.


We review the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to the verdict. State v. Storey, 901 S.W.2d 886, 891 (Mo. banc 1995). The trial court is vested with broad discretion to admit and exclude evidence at trial. Error will be found only if this discretion was clearly abused. State v. Simmons, 955 S.W.2d 729, 737 (Mo. banc 1997), cert. denied --- U.S. ----, 118 S.Ct. 1081, 140 L.Ed.2d 138 (1998).

On direct appeal we review the trial court "for prejudice, not mere error, and will reverse only if the error was so prejudicial that it deprived the defendant of a fair trial." State v. Morrow, 968 S.W.2d 100, 106 (Mo. banc 1998), cert. denied --- U.S. ----, 119 S.Ct. 222, 142 L.Ed.2d 182; State v. Hutchison, 957 S.W.2d 757, 761 (Mo. banc 1997); State v. Skillicorn, 944 S.W.2d 877, 884 (Mo. banc 1997), cert. denied --- U.S. ----, 118 S.Ct. 568, 139 L.Ed.2d 407 (1997). Issues that were not preserved may be reviewed for plain error only, requiring the court to find that manifest injustice or miscarriage of justice has resulted from the trial court error. Simmons, 955 S.W.2d at 737.


On appeal, Middleton alleges twenty-six issues of error. We address his claims as follows: Middleton claims the trial court erred by 1) admitting the identification testimony of Wesley Booth; 2) refusing to disclose the mental health records of state's witness Douglas Stallsworth; 3) allowing certain statements by the prosecutor during guilt-phase closing arguments; 4) admitting evidence seized during a search of Middleton's home pursuant to a search warrant; 5) admitting evidence seized in search of Middleton's vehicle without a search warrant; 6) allowing certain questions during cross-examination of defense witness Dr. Murphy; 7) denying a motion for a directed verdict of life in prison when a juror was excused after the guilt phase; 8) refusing to use Middleton's proposed penalty phase instruction adding one statutory mitigating circumstance; 9) striking two venirepersons for cause; 10) limiting questioning of prospective jurors; 11) (Middleton's points 11 & 12) admitting a crime scene video, a photograph of the victim's body, and fragments of the victim's jaw bone and teeth during the guilt phase; 12) (Middleton's point 13) admitting expert opinion testimony; 13) (Middleton's point 14) refusing to grant a second change of venue; 14) (Middleton's point 15) admitting penalty-phase evidence of a crime scene video of two other murders committed by Middleton; 15) (Middleton's points 16 & 17) admitting testimony of Pinegar's mother and a photograph of Pinegar and his daughter at the penalty phase; 16) (Middleton's point 18) refusing Middleton's proposed penalty phase instructions on mitigating circumstances; 17) (Middleton's point 21) refusing to grant a second continuance; 18) (Middleton's point 23) refusing to grant a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the definition of first-degree murder is unconstitutionally vague; 19) (Middleton's point 24) refusing to quash the venire panel because it did not include persons between the ages of 18 and 21; 20) (Middleton's point 25) refusing to grant Middleton's motion to dismiss on the grounds of improper prosecutorial discretion; and 21) (Middleton's point 26) admitting an improper reasonable doubt instruction.

Middleton further argues that: 1) (Middleton's point 22) he is entitled to a reversal of his conviction and sentence because the transcript of his trial contains defects and therefore hampers his ability to bring an effective appeal; 2) (Middleton's point 20) his death sentence must be set aside because Missouri's proportionality review under section 565.035.3(3) provides no meaningful review in violation of his due process rights; and 3) (Middleton's point 19) his death sentence must be set aside because it is disproportionate to the punishment imposed in similar cases.

We first address the issues of alleged trial court error and then address Middleton's three additional challenges to his conviction and sentence.


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