State v. Simmons

Citation944 S.W.2d 165
Decision Date29 April 1997
Docket NumberNo. 77269,77269
PartiesSTATE of Missouri, Respondent, v. Christopher SIMMONS, Appellant.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

Melinda K. Pendergraph, Asst. Public Defender, Columbia, for Appellant.

Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Attorney General, Cassandra K. Dolgin, Assistant Attorney General, Jefferson City, for Respondent.


A jury convicted Christopher Simmons of first-degree murder and recommended that he be sentenced to death for the abduction and murder of Shirley Crook. The trial court sentenced Simmons to death. Simmons appeals, raising numerous points challenging the propriety of his conviction and death sentence and his counsels' performance. Simmons filed a timely Rule 29.15 motion which the trial court overruled. This Court's exclusive appellate jurisdiction is founded on article V, section 3 of the Missouri Constitution. We affirm the judgment of conviction and sentence and the denial of relief under Rule 29.15.

I. Facts

Simmons does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction. We recite the facts only in sufficient detail to reconstruct the factual environment in which the legal issues arise.

In early September 1993, Christopher Simmons, then age 17, discussed with his friends, Charlie Benjamin (age 15) and John Tessmer (age 16), the possibility of committing a burglary and murdering someone. On several occasions, Simmons described the manner in which he planned to commit the crime: he would find someone to burglarize, tie the victim up and ultimately push the victim off a bridge. Simmons assured his friends that their status as juveniles would allow them to "get away with it." Simmons apparently believed that a "voodoo man" who lived in a nearby trailer park would be the best victim. Rumor had it that the voodoo man owned hotels and motels and had lots of money despite his residence in a mobile home park.

On September 8, 1993, Simmons arranged to meet Benjamin and Tessmer at around 2:00 a.m. the following morning for the purpose of carrying out the plan. The boys met at the home of Brian Moomey, a 29-year-old convicted felon who allowed neighborhood teens to "hang out" at his home. Tessmer met Simmons and Benjamin, but he refused to go with them and returned to his own home. Simmons and Benjamin left Moomey's and went to Shirley Crook's house to commit a burglary.

The two found a back window cracked open at the rear of Crook's home. They opened the window, reached through, unlocked the back door, and entered the house. Moving through the house, Simmons turned on a hallway light. The light awakened Mrs. Crook, who was home alone. She sat up in bed and asked, "Who's there?" Simmons entered her bedroom and recognized Mrs. Crook as a woman with whom he had previously had an automobile accident. Mrs. Crook apparently recognized Simmons as well.

Simmons ordered Mrs. Crook out of her bed and, when she did not comply, Simmons forced her to the floor with Benjamin's help. While Benjamin guarded Mrs. Crook in the bedroom, Simmons found a roll of duct tape, returned to the bedroom, and bound her hands behind her back. The two also taped Mrs. Crook's eyes and mouth shut. They walked Mrs. Crook from her home and placed her in the back of her minivan. Simmons drove the van from Mrs. Crook's home in Jefferson County to Castlewood State Park in St. Louis County.

At the park, Simmons drove the van to a railroad trestle that spanned the Meramec River. Simmons parked the van near the railroad trestle. He and Benjamin began to unload Mrs. Crook from the van and discovered that she had freed her hands and had removed some of the duct tape from her face. Using Mrs. Crook's purse strap, the belt from her bathrobe, a towel from the back of the minivan, and some electrical wire found on the trestle, Simmons and Benjamin bound Mrs. Crook, restraining her hands and feet and covering her head with a towel. Simmons and Benjamin walked Mrs. Crook to the railroad trestle. There, Simmons bound her hands and feet together, hog-tie fashion, with the electrical cable and covered Mrs. Crook's face completely with duct tape. Simmons then pushed her off the railroad trestle into the river below. At the time she fell, Mrs. Crook was alive and conscious. Simmons and Benjamin threw Mrs. Crook's purse into the woods and drove the van back to the mobile home park across from the subdivision in which Mrs. Crook lived.

Later that day, Simmons went to Moomey's trailer and bragged to Moomey that he had killed a woman "because the bitch seen my face." In the meantime, Steven Crook, Shirley's husband, returned home from an overnight trip and discovered that his wife had not gone to work as scheduled. When he did not hear from his wife by that evening, he filed a missing persons report.

That same afternoon, two fishermen found a body floating in the Meramec River, three-quarters of a mile downstream from the railroad trestle. The fishermen notified authorities, who removed the body. The medical examiner identified the body from fingerprints, determined the cause of death as drowning and noted that the victim was alive prior to being pushed from the bridge. The examiner also reported that Mrs. Crook had sustained several fractured ribs and considerable bruising and that these injuries did not result from her fall from the railroad trestle.

The next day, September 10, police received information that Simmons was involved in the murder. They arrested Simmons at his high school and took him to the Fenton, Missouri, police department. Police read Simmons the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). Simmons waived his constitutional rights and, after a little less than two hours of questioning, confessed to the murder. He also agreed to videotape a confession and to take part in a videotaped "reenactment" of the murder at the crime scene.

The Jefferson County prosecutor charged Simmons with first-degree murder, burglary, kidnapping and stealing. The trial court severed the last three charges for trial purposes. Simmons sought a change of venue. The trial court refused but agreed to transfer a jury from Cape Girardeau County into Jefferson County to hear the case due to the substantial publicity the crime had received in Jefferson County.

The jury found Simmons guilty of first-degree murder and recommended the death sentence. The trial court sentenced Simmons to death. Simmons filed a Rule 29.15 motion, which his appointed public defender amended in a timely fashion. Following an evidentiary hearing, the motion court overruled Simmons's Rule 29.15 motion. Simmons appealed the conviction, his sentence, and the denial of post-conviction relief.

II. Venue

Simmons contends that venue did not lie in Jefferson County, but rather in St. Louis County, and that the trial court erred in not transferring the case to St. Louis County or, alternatively, dismissing the charges. Although the burglary and abduction occurred in Jefferson County, Crook's death took place in St. Louis County and thus, Simmons argues, venue lies in St. Louis County.

For support, Simmons cites State v. Harvey, 730 S.W.2d 271 (Mo.App.1987). Harvey is inapposite. It holds that jurisdiction of a murder is properly in the state in which the defendant delivered the fatal wound or blow.

Venue of homicides is governed by section 565.001.4, RSMo 1994. State v. Lingar, 726 S.W.2d 728, 732 (Mo. banc 1987). That statute provides that, in instances where the offense is committed partly in one county and partly in another or where the elements of the crime occur in more than one county, the defendant may be prosecuted in any of the counties where any element of the offense occurred.

Appellate review of this question focuses on whether one can reasonably infer from the facts and circumstances that the crime occurred within the trial court's venue. Lingar at 732. The evidence shows that Simmons broke into Shirley Crook's home in Jefferson County, found her there, and believed she would recognize him because he had an automobile accident that involved Mrs. Crook. Simmons bound Mrs. Crook in Jefferson County, placed her in her van in Jefferson County, and drove to the railroad trestle spanning the Meramec River in St. Louis County, bearing the intent to kill her he had formed in Jefferson County.

Deliberation is an element of first degree murder. Section 565.020.1, RSMo 1994. This Court observed in Lingar that the conclusion that the defendant had deliberated the crime within a county is sufficient to establish venue in that county under section 565.001.4. Lingar, 726 S.W.2d at 732. See also Leisure v. State, 828 S.W.2d 872, 879 (Mo. banc 1992) (finding that deliberation and premeditation within St. Louis City made venue proper although death occurred outside the city limits).

From the evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that Simmons deliberated the crime in Jefferson County. This finding is sufficient to establish venue in Jefferson County under section 565.001.4. The point is denied.


Jury Selection


Simmons assigns error to the trial court's decision to sustain the state's challenges for cause to two venirepersons who expressed a discomfort with and uncertainty about the death penalty, claiming a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.

When a prospective juror's views on the death penalty would "prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and oath," Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 424, 105 S.Ct. 844, 852, 83 L.Ed.2d 841 (1985), the trial court may exclude the juror for cause. The trial court must determine whether the views expressed by a prospective juror will prevent or substantially impair performance of a juror's duties, subject to appellate review for abuse of discretion. On review, the trial court is afforded great...

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