State v. Miller

Decision Date07 December 2021
Docket NumberNo. W2019-00197-SC-DDT-DD,W2019-00197-SC-DDT-DD
Parties STATE of Tennessee v. Urshawn Eric MILLER
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Jeremy B. Epperson, District Public Defender (on appeal); George Morton Googe,2 District Public Defender, and Gregory D. Gookin, Assistant District Public Defender (at trial and on appeal), Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellant, Urshawn Eric Miller.

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée Sophia Blumstein, Solicitor General; Nicholas W. Spangler, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Jody Pickens, District Attorney General; and Shaun A. Brown and Al Earls, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Roger A. Page, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, and Holly Kirby, JJ., joined. Sharon G. Lee, J., filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Cornelia A. Clark, J., not participating.3


A Madison County jury convicted the defendant, Urshawn Eric Miller, of first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder for fatally shooting a convenience store employee during an attempted robbery of the store. The jury also convicted the defendant of the attempted second-degree murder of another store employee and of attempted especially aggravated robbery, aggravated assault, employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, evading arrest, and resisting arrest. The jury imposed the death penalty for the first-degree murder convictions. The trial court merged the felony murder conviction into the premeditated murder conviction and the aggravated assault conviction into the attempted second-degree murder conviction, and it imposed an effective thirty-year sentence for the remaining convictions to run concurrently with the death sentence. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the convictions and sentences but vacated the application of the felony murder aggravating circumstance as to the felony murder conviction. Upon our automatic review, we conclude: (1) the trial court properly ruled on challenges to certain jurors for cause during individual voir dire; (2) the evidence was sufficient to establish the defendant's identity as the perpetrator and his guilt of the convicted offenses; (3) the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the State to introduce a video recording of the defendant's prior aggravated robbery during the penalty phase; (4) the death penalty generally, and lethal injection specifically, do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment; and (5) the death sentence satisfies our mandatory review pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-206. Accordingly, we affirm the defendant's convictions and sentence of death; however, we reverse the portion of the intermediate court's judgment vacating the application of the felony murder aggravating circumstance.


On November 25, 2015, a man wearing black clothing, gray gloves, and a white face covering entered the Bull Market in Jackson, Tennessee. The man pointed a gun at the twenty-four-year-old clerk, Ahmad Dhalai, and instructed him to "Drop that sh*t off or I'ma shoot you dead in the head." The man looked briefly in the direction of another employee, Lawrence Austin, before turning back to Mr. Dhalai stating, "Drop that sh*t off." The man fired an initial shot that barely missed Mr. Dhalai's head. As Mr. Dhalai slowly turned to walk away, the man again demanded, "Drop that sh*t off. Quit playing." The man then shot Mr. Dhalai in the back of the head. Next, he fired a shot in the direction of Mr. Austin and jumped over the counter. He banged on the cash register with his elbow to no avail before jumping back over the counter and fleeing the store. Mr. Dhalai died moments later. The entire encounter was captured on the store's surveillance cameras.

The defendant, Urshawn Eric Miller, was charged with first-degree murder, first-degree murder in perpetration of attempted especially aggravated robbery, attempted especially aggravated robbery, attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault, employing a firearm in the attempt to commit a dangerous felony, being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, resisting arrest, and evading arrest. The trial began on February 26, 2018.

At trial, Mr. Austin testified that he worked at the Bull Market cleaning up, restocking, and doing other tasks as needed. He was mopping on the night of November 25, 2015, when he remembered a man entering the store. He explained that the man was wearing dark clothing, had "something on his face," and that he "believe[d] the person was black." He heard the man say, "Drop it off." Still, Mr. Austin was not concerned until he heard a gunshot. He moved toward one of the store's refrigerators to attempt to hide himself. The masked man pointed the gun at Mr. Austin and fired. Mr. Austin then witnessed the man jump over the counter before fleeing the store. He briefly chased after the man but did not see which direction the man ran.

In addition to Mr. Austin, the brief encounter was witnessed by Abdul Saleh, the victim's cousin, who was also working that evening and whose brother owned the market. Mr. Saleh was in the rear of the store in the restroom when he heard what he described as a "loud pop" followed by two more "pops." As he proceeded to the front of the store, Mr. Saleh saw Mr. Dhalai on the floor with blood around his head and observed the man standing in front of the cash register. Fearing he could also be shot, Mr. Saleh retreated to the office until the man left the market. Mr. Saleh attempted to render aid to Mr. Dhalai and called 911.

Mr. Saleh's fourteen-year-old son, Foad, was riding his bicycle in the parking lot when he heard two or three gunshots. He witnessed "a black man who was coming outside and out the store." He testified that the man he saw leaving the market was dressed in a black hoodie and black pants and was wearing a white mask. Foad Saleh gave the police a description of the man and the direction the man fled.

Timothy Sinclair, Sr., a regular customer, testified that he had just left the market with his purchases. While loading his purchases in his truck, he saw a black male wearing dark-colored clothing, a hoodie, and something white across his face coming around the side of the market. Just as the man entered the store, Mr. Sinclair saw a gun in the man's hand. Mr. Sinclair explained that he stood frozen and, a few seconds later, heard shots fired inside the store. He quickly got in his truck and started to back out of the parking lot when he saw the man run out of the store and around the side of the building. Mr. Sinclair then called 911.

Officer Kevin Livingston arrived on the scene within two minutes. At the "chaotic" scene, Officer Livingston observed Mr. Saleh behind the counter applying pressure to Mr. Dhalai's head which had a "pretty massive exit wound" with "blood, brain matter on the floor." Mr. Dhalai made shallow "gurgling" sounds but did not have a pulse. Lieutenant Shane Beaver also arrived quickly and secured the scene. After learning of the suspect's description and direction of travel, Lieutenant Beaver directed the approximately twenty officers in the area to set up a perimeter and deployed K-9 Officer Jeremy Stines.

Officer Stines and his dog, Pax, tracked the suspect to a wooded area near Lions’ Field at Lambuth University where he was hemmed in by the officers. According to Lieutenant Beaver, despite repeated instructions to come out of the woods, the suspect resisted and shouted "F*ck you. You're going to have to come in here and get me" and "You might get me, but I'm going to take one of your mother f*ckers with me." Because the suspect refused to surrender, Officer Stines released Pax in an attempt to force the suspect out of the woods. Pax bit the suspect on the shoulder and they both tumbled to the ground. Officer Stines hit the suspect in the head with his gun when he refused to release his hands from around the dog's throat. Officer Kyle Hamilton ultimately used his taser to subdue the suspect. The suspect, later identified as the defendant, was handcuffed and placed in a patrol car where he was transported initially to the hospital for treatment of the dog bite and then to the jail.

The officers who remained on the scene searched the immediate area and recovered various items including a black jacket with a hood, black pants, a belt, gray gloves, a portion of a white t-shirt, a cell phone, a .38 caliber revolver, and keys. Investigator Marvin Rodish, Jr. viewed the revolver and recovered three spent shell casings and three live rounds from inside the cylinder of the firearm. He later collected three "projectiles," or bullet fragments, from inside the market.

Investigator Dan Long executed a search warrant at the defendant's residence. The keys previously found near Lions’ Field unlocked the door to the house and the trunk of a car registered to the defendant that was parked near that house. A portion of a torn white t-shirt was collected from the defendant's bedroom.

Dr. Eric Warren, who was employed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ("TBI") as a Special Agent Forensic Scientist, examined and test fired the .38 special revolver found at the scene. He concluded the three spent casings recovered from the revolver had been fired from the gun. As for the three "projectiles" collected from the crime scene, Dr. Warren explained that they had "class characteristics to indicate that the revolver ... could have fired them." However, due to the damage, he could not state with certainty that the bullet fragments were fired from the revolver.

TBI Special Agent Charly Castelbuono testified that she found the defendant's DNA to be the "major contributor" on the white t-shirt fragment, the inside of the left gray glove, the hooded sweatshirt, the black pants, and the revolver.4 In addition, TBI Special...

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