State v. Potter, 020519 TNCRIM, E2015-02261-CCA-R3-CD

Docket Nº:E2015-02261-CCA-R3-CD
Attorney:Cameron L. Hyder, Elizabethton, Tennessee, for the appellant, Jenelle Leigh Potter. Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Nicholas W. Spangler, Assistant Attorney General; Ken C. Baldwin, District Attorney General; and Dennis Brooks and Matthew Roark, Assistant District Attorneys...
Judge Panel:Robert W. Wedemeyer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which James Curwood Witt, Jr. and Robert L. Holloway, Jr., JJ., joined.
Case Date:February 05, 2019
Court:Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee




No. E2015-02261-CCA-R3-CD

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

February 5, 2019

Session September 26, 2018

Appeal from the Criminal Court for Washington County No. 39553B, 41831 Jon Kerry Blackwood, Senior Judge.

A Washington County jury convicted the Defendant, Jenelle Leigh Potter, of two counts of first degree premeditated murder and one count of conspiracy to commit first degree murder. The trial court merged the conspiracy conviction and ordered concurrent life sentences for both murder convictions. On appeal, the Defendant asserts that: (1) the trial court erred when it failed to grant her request for a change of venire; (2) the evidence is insufficient to support her convictions for premeditated first degree murder and conspiracy to commit premeditated first degree murder; (3) the criminal responsibility statute, Tennessee Code Annotated, section, 39-11-402, is unconstitutionally vague; and (4) the trial court erred when it failed to enjoin the prosecutor from publishing his book about this case until after the final adjudication of this case. Following our review, we affirm the convictions for first degree premeditated murder, but hold that merger of the conspiracy conviction was error. We reinstate the Defendant's conviction for conspiracy to commit first degree murder and remand to the trial court for sentencing on that count.

Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgments of the Criminal Court Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part and Remanded.

Cameron L. Hyder, Elizabethton, Tennessee, for the appellant, Jenelle Leigh Potter.

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Nicholas W. Spangler, Assistant Attorney General; Ken C. Baldwin, District Attorney General; and Dennis Brooks and Matthew Roark, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Robert W. Wedemeyer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which James Curwood Witt, Jr. and Robert L. Holloway, Jr., JJ., joined.



I. Facts

This case involves the murders of two victims, Billy Payne ("Victim Payne") and Billie Jean Hayworth ("Victim Hayworth"), whose bodies were found inside their Mountain City home ("Paw Bill's residence")1 in January 2012. For these crimes, a Johnson County grand jury indicted the Defendant's father, Marvin E. "Buddy" Potter, Jr., ("Buddy"), the Defendant's mother, Barbara Potter ("Barbara"), the Defendant, and Jamie Curd ("Jamie").2 Buddy was tried and convicted in October 2013;3 Jamie entered a plea agreement with the State;4 and Barbara and the Defendant were tried jointly in May 2015. The following is a summary of the evidence presented at trial.

On Tuesday morning, January 31, 2012, Brad Osborne drove to "Paw Bill's" residence at around 6:30 a.m. to pick up Victim Payne for work. When Mr. Osborne arrived, Victim Payne's father, "Paw Bill," had already left for work. Mr. Osborne waited a few minutes, noting that the victims' shared bedroom light was illuminated. When Victim Payne did not exit his house within a few minutes as he normally did, Mr. Osborne exited his vehicle and walked around the side of the house to the rear sliding glass door that was "seldom" locked. Mr. Osborne knocked on the sliding glass door and then entered the residence. Inside, he heard an alarm clock ringing that continued ringing throughout the time Mr. Osborne was inside the residence. From the living room, Mr. Osborne called out to Victim Payne numerous times with no response. He used the house landline to call Victim Payne's cell phone and did not hear Victim Payne's cell phone ringing inside the house. As Mr. Osborne turned to leave, he again called out to Victim Payne. Upon receiving no response, Mr. Osborne left the house and drove to work alone.

Later that morning, at around 10:00 a.m., Roy Stephens, a former neighbor, went to Paw Bill's residence to pick up his mail. Mr. Stephens noticed that Victim Payne's and Victim Hayworth's vehicles were at the residence, so he knocked on and then entered the unlocked sliding glass door at the back of the home. When he entered the residence, Mr. Stephens "holler[ed]" but received no response. He continued to call out as he walked down the hallway toward the bedrooms, and when he looked into the first bedroom, he saw blood near the doorway and found Victim Payne lying on his back on the bed. He "hollered at [Victim Payne][, ] approached him, and grabbed him by the arms to see if he would respond[.]" When Victim Payne did not respond, Mr. Stephens ran out of the house and told his wife, Linda Stephens, who was sitting in their car, to call 911 because Victim Payne was dead.

Mrs. Stephens, who was trained in CPR, entered the residence to attempt to provide aid. She found Victim Payne "very stiff and ice cold[, ]" and his face looked as if he had been beaten. When she attempted to find a pulse in Victim Payne's neck, Mrs. Stephens realized that his throat had been cut. Mrs. Stephens used a phone in the living room to call 911. While she was speaking with the 911 operator, Mr. Stephens heard a noise coming from a second bedroom. When he entered the room, he found Victim Hayworth lying on the floor of the second bedroom with the victims' seven-month-old baby in her arms. Mr. Stephens noticed that the baby was breathing and appeared to be asleep. However, Victim Hayworth was not breathing, and Mr. Stephens could "see a hole in her head."

As part of the investigation into the victims' deaths, an autopsy of both victims was conducted, and the autopsy report was consistent with the Stephens' observations at the crime scene. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Victim Payne found a visible gunshot wound under his left eye. Victim Payne also suffered deep "slash wounds" to his neck. The medical examiner concluded that Victim Payne's cause of death was a "[g]unshot wound of the head and sharp force injuries of the neck" and that the manner of death was homicide. Victim Hayworth also sustained a gunshot wound to the head. The medical examiner opined that Victim Hayworth's cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head and that the manner of death was homicide.

Johnson County Chief Deputy Joe Woodard and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ("TBI") Special Agent Scott Lott were assigned the investigation in this case. During the investigation, many of the victims' friends and family members identified the Potter family as "enemies" of the victims. As they spoke with various individuals, law enforcement officers began to see a connection between social media and the development of hostility between the victims and the Potters that escalated over the months leading up to the murders.

Buddy and Barbara moved from Pennsylvania to Mountain City in 2004. Christie Groover, Buddy and Barbara's oldest daughter, recalled that Buddy joined the Marines at eighteen, and she had been told that he worked for the CIA during the Vietnam War. Around the time of Ms. Groover's birth, Buddy was injured while "building the high tension electric poles" and was no longer able to work or remain in the Marines. Ms. Groover recalled days during her childhood when Buddy would be unable to get out of a chair. In addition to his back injuries, Buddy also suffered from pulmonary issues. Ms. Groover last saw Buddy in July 2010, and she described him as "feeble" and walking with the support of a cane.

Buddy and Barbara raised their only children, Ms. Groover and the Defendant, in Pennsylvania. The Defendant graduated from high school and could read and write but had some difficulty with learning. About the Defendant's ability to learn, Ms. Groover stated: She was diagnosed when she was younger with learning disabilities. She couldn't hear till she was maybe 2 or 3, I guess. I'm - I'm not really sure of the age. She was in speech therapy, had tubes put in her ears, had to have her tonsils out, all that kind of stuff to try to help her hear better. She was sick a lot. She had what they said were learning disabilities. She was in Special Education, I think through most of her school career.

Ms. Groover agreed that the Defendant was "a little bit slower in learning and in developmental capacity" and that the Defendant's reasoning and interaction with other people had always been "a little odd."

Ms. Groover believed that Barbara and Buddy "coddled" the Defendant. As the older sibling, Ms. Groover never felt she needed to protect the Defendant because her parents always took care of any issues the Defendant faced. Ms. Groover said that she did not believe that the Defendant's disabilities were "as bad as everybody else said they were." She had witnessed the Defendant manipulate and deceive others and, therefore...

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