State v. Rice

Decision Date22 February 2006
Citation184 S.W.3d 646
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee v. Charles RICE.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

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Marty B. McAfee and Stephen Leffler, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Charles Rice.

Paul G. Summers, Attorney General and Reporter; Michael E. Moore, Solicitor General; Angele M. Gregory, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

WILLIAM M. BARKER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which E. RILEY ANDERSON, JANICE M. HOLDER, and CORNELIA A. CLARK, JJ., joined. ADOLPHO A. BIRCH, JR., J., filed a concurring and dissenting opinion.

OPINION

A jury convicted the defendant, Charles Rice, of first degree murder. Following a capital sentencing hearing, the jury found three aggravating circumstances: (1) the defendant was previously convicted of one or more felonies, the statutory elements of which involve the use of violence to the person; (2) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse beyond that necessary to produce death; and (3) the murder was knowingly committed by the defendant while the defendant had a substantial role in committing, or was fleeing after having a substantial role in committing or attempting to commit a rape. Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(2), (5), (7) (1997). The jury also found that these aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, the jury imposed a sentence of death. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed both the conviction and sentence.

Upon automatic appeal pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-206 (2003), this Court entered an order specifying seven issues for oral argument,1 including (1) whether the evidence is sufficient to support the conviction; (2) whether the evidence is sufficient to support the aggravating circumstances found by the jury; (3) whether the trial court's instruction to the jury that aggravated assault was a felony whose statutory elements involve violence to the person violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution; (4) whether the trial court's restriction of the defendant's cross-examination regarding Tony Evans' prior conviction was harmless error; (5) whether the trial court erred in refusing to allow the defendant to sit at the defense counsel table; (6) whether the trial court erred in not instructing the jury on the lesser-included offense of facilitation; and (7) whether the death sentence is comparatively proportionate and valid under the mandatory review provisions of Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-206(c)(1)(A)-(D) (2003). After a careful review of the record and relevant legal authority, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Guilt Phase

The victim, thirteen-year-old Emily Branch, was reported missing on June 18, 2000, and her body was discovered on June 25, 2000. After a police investigation, the defendant, Charles Rice, was questioned and arrested for her murder. A Shelby County jury found the defendant guilty of first degree premeditated murder and of first degree felony murder and sentenced the defendant to death. The convictions were subsequently merged into a single conviction.

The State's proof at trial established that on June 18, 2000, the victim was staying with her father, Steven Dwayney Branch ("Branch"). Branch lived in Memphis with his girlfriend and her three children. The victim usually lived with Branch's sister, Margaret Branch, but she was staying with her father because it was Father's Day.

The victim's mother, Tracie Anderson ("Anderson"), was married to the defendant during the time relevant to this case, but the victim never lived with her mother and the defendant while they were married. Anderson and the defendant had argued on June 6, 2000, prompting Anderson to leave the defendant and move in with her brother. She had left the defendant on numerous other occasions, but had always returned. Prior to her leaving, the defendant told her that if she left him, "[i]t will hurt you more than it hurts me." Anderson told Branch not to let the victim go to the defendant's house anymore. According to Anderson, the defendant used drugs, specifically crack cocaine.

On the morning of the 18th, the victim left her father's house at about 11:00 a.m. with three other girls. She was wearing "a white short-pants overall set with a navy blue shirt, some white socks, her blue and white tennies, and she had a necklace around her neck." Monica Downey ("Downey"), one of the daughters of Branch's girlfriend, was with the victim that day. She testified that she, the victim, and five other girls "walked around because that's our normal routine every day." While out walking, the defendant came by and talked to the victim. Downey said that she could not hear what was said.

After the defendant left, the girls went to a store and then to the defendant's house on Firestone Street. The victim went inside the house while Downey and the other girls waited outside. The victim later came outside and told Downey that they all had to leave; they left the victim on the defendant's front porch and went to a park. According to Downey, this was about 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon. Downey said that it was not unusual for the victim to go to the defendant's house when the victim's mother lived there. Downey did not know that the victim's mother no longer lived there. She said that she never saw the defendant while they were at his house.

According to Willie Lee Hall ("Hall"), the defendant's stepfather who lived with the defendant at 1272 Firestone Street, the victim came by the residence on the 18th of June, asking to walk the dog. After Hall refused, the victim went outside to talk to the girls with whom she had been. Then the victim left the house with the defendant, walking down the street toward Bellevue Street. According to Hall, this was about 3:40 in the afternoon. Later that afternoon, the defendant returned to the house to watch television; he did not change his clothes. Hall said that while at the house, before leaving with the defendant, the victim was never out of his sight.

Marquette Houston ("Houston"), a friend of the victim from the neighborhood, saw the victim on the afternoon of June 18, sitting on her father's front porch listening to music. He recalled that she was listening to a Vanilla Ice CD. He told her that "nobody . . . listen[s] to Vanilla Ice [any] more." Houston noticed that the CD had a scratch on it.

Tony Evans ("Evans"), a friend of the victim's mother and father, also saw the victim on the day of her disappearance. He lived on Firestone Street, and on the afternoon of June 18, around 2:00 or 3:00 p.m., he saw the victim and a "lot of little girls" walk to the defendant's house. Later that day, he observed the victim and the defendant walking away from the defendant's house heading west on Firestone. He found it surprising that the two were together because he knew that the victim's mother had recently left the defendant due to abuse. Therefore, he followed the victim and the defendant. After turning off Firestone Street, the two went up a small street then headed back on Empire Street, and then south on Bellevue toward an Amoco station. Then they walked past the station through the pathway on the side. At that time, Evans returned home to finish his yard work. Evans explained that he stopped following the two when they got to the path by the Amoco station because the path leads to Brown Street, where some of the defendant's relatives lived. He assumed that the victim's mother and the defendant had gotten back together and that the defendant and victim were going to visit relatives.

The victim's father began to worry when the victim had not returned home by 5:00 p.m. on June 18. He called the police that night to report her missing. The police told him that she would probably be back and that they would report her as a runaway. Branch testified that the victim had never run away before, so that night he began to search the neighborhood for her. A few of his neighbors helped in his search.

The following day, Anderson called Evans and asked him if he had seen the victim. Evans told her that he had seen the victim and the defendant go down the path next to the Amoco station. After speaking with the victim's mother, Evans went to the area of the path to look for the victim, but did not find anything. He explained that he wanted to find the victim because both parents were his good friends. Several days later, Branch also spoke with Evans, telling him that the victim had been missing since June 18.

Evans testified that two days after the victim was last seen, he saw Mario Rice ("Mario"), who is the defendant's nephew, and the defendant walk together down to the woods by the Amoco station. He said that the police were called, but they did not get there in time because it was night. During the week the victim was missing, Evans saw the defendant and Mario sitting in the yard of a house on Alaska Street, watching that same pathway. This made him even more suspicious of the defendant. For two to three nights in a row, Evans hid in the crawl space underneath the house on Alaska Street where Mario and the defendant were. While there, he overheard Mario and the defendant discuss plans to kill Anderson. He never heard them talk about the victim. He remained under the house on those nights until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning.

On June 25, Evans had repaired his four-wheeler and drove back to the area surrounding the pathway to search again. When he went into the woods, he smelled an odor like something had died, so he began looking in the direction from which the smell was coming. He had to chop through the...

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