State v. Stephenson

Decision Date09 May 1994
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee, Appellee, v. Jonathan Wesley STEPHENSON, Appellant.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Edward C. Miller, Public Defender, Dandridge, William M. Leibrock, Newport, Brock Mehler, Nashville, for appellant.

Charles W. Burson, Atty. Gen. and Reporter, and Amy L. Tarkington, Asst. Atty. Gen., Nashville, for appellee.


ANDERSON, Justice.

In this capital case, the defendant, John Wesley Stephenson, was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. In the sentencing hearing, the jury found one aggravating circumstance; "the defendant ... employed another to commit the murder for remuneration or the promise of remuneration." Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(4) (1991). The jury found that "there are no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to balance or outweigh" the statutory aggravating circumstance and sentenced the defendant to death by electrocution. The trial court also sentenced the defendant to twenty-five years consecutive to the death penalty on the conspiracy conviction.

On appeal, the defendant raises numerous issues for our review which involve alleged errors occurring during both the guilt and sentencing phases of the trial. We have carefully considered the defendant's contentions as to errors occurring during the guilt phase and have determined that none have merit. We therefore affirm the convictions.

As to the sentencing phase in this case, both the crimes and the trial occurred after the effective date of the 1989 amendments to the capital sentencing statute, which allowed imposition of the death penalty only upon a jury finding that the State "has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstance or circumstances outweigh any mitigating circumstances." Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(g)(2)(B) (1991). The trial court, however, erroneously instructed the jury at sentencing by using the language of the pre-1989 statute, which did not contain the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. Thereafter, the error was compounded when the trial court delivered to the jury a pre-1989 jury verdict form to use in returning the sentencing verdict. This form also did not contain the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard and differed in other respects from the 1989 statute, as amended. The jury returned its verdict on the old form, which provided that:

We, the jury, unanimously find that there are no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to balance or outweigh the statutory aggravating circumstance or circumstances listed above. Therefore, we, the jury unanimously find that the punishment shall be death by electrocution for the offense of murder in the first degree.

See Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-2-203(g) (1982). All twelve jurors personally signed the finding and verdict.

A criminal defendant is entitled to have the issues at the sentencing phase of a capital trial determined by a jury that has been correctly instructed as to the applicable law. The instructions given the jury in this case were both conflicting and incorrect as to the law. That error was compounded when the jury made its findings and returned its verdict on a pre-1989 jury verdict form. Because the death penalty was imposed on a lower standard of proof than that provided by law, the result is a facially void verdict and prejudicial error. We are unable to conclude that such a fundamental error as to the standard of proof required for a sentence of death was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the sentence of death is reversed and the case is remanded for resentencing.

Many of the alleged sentencing phase trial court errors asserted by the defendant in this appeal have been rendered moot because of the necessity of a remand and are pretermitted. We will, however, address alleged trial court errors in the sentencing phase which may become relevant on remand.


The State's proof introduced at the guilt phase of trial demonstrated that around 10:00 a.m. on December 4, 1989, the body of Lisa Stephenson, was found in the driver's seat of her car, which was parked on a rural road in the Bruner's Grove Community of Cocke County, Tennessee. Stephenson had died from a massive gunshot wound to her forehead inflicted by a high powered rifle fired at close range. The pathologist described the cause of death as "high velocity rifle destruction of the head and brain." A single gunshot had pierced the car's front windshield, and fragments of glass found in the victim's body were consistent with the fatal bullet's having passed through the windshield. The pathologist testified that the victim had died at least twelve to fifteen hours before the autopsy he performed around 6:30 p.m. on December 4, 1989.

At the time of Lisa Stephenson's death, Jonathan Wesley Stephenson was a truck driver employed by Just in Time Express (J.I.T. Express) in Morristown. She and the defendant had been married eight years. Two sons, ages eight months and four years, had been born to the marriage. The couple lived southwest of Morristown in the Talbott area, in a trailer behind the home of H.A. Saylor, Lisa's father. On December 3, 1989, Saylor saw the defendant leave around 5:30-6:00 p.m. Later that evening, around 8:30, both Saylor and his wife heard someone drive away from the trailer where Lisa and the defendant lived. The next morning Lisa was missing and the two children were found alone in the trailer.

In March of 1989, the defendant met Julie Webb at Rumors, a bar in Knoxville, and the two began an affair. The defendant told Webb that his wife, Lisa, had died five years earlier and that he was living with her sister "Kathy," by whom he had two children. In June of 1989, Lisa telephoned Webb's residence while the defendant was there and asked to speak to him. Webb also confirmed that in October 1989 she and the defendant had taken without permission a boat and motor from the home of the defendant's father just outside St. Louis, Missouri.

The evidence showed that the defendant had asked at least two acquaintances to kill his wife. The first, Glen Franklin Brewer, a driver at J.I.T. Express, testified that on "numerous occasions" the defendant asked him to kill a "friend's wife," who lived in the Talbott area. In return for the killing, the defendant first offered Brewer a boat, motor and a pickup truck, and another time promised to pay Brewer $3,000. Still later, he offered Brewer $5,000 from the proceeds of an insurance policy on the victim.

The defendant was, in fact, the beneficiary of a $5,000 life insurance policy on his wife. Brewer testified that the defendant complained about his wife's psychiatric and medical expenses and said he wanted a divorce but could not afford it because he would lose everything. Michael Litz, an acquaintance, testified that in the fall of 1989 the defendant offered him $5,000 to kill Lisa because she was going to divorce him and take everything.

Dave Robertson, the office manager at J.I.T. Express, testified that he was with the defendant when he met Julie Webb in March 1989, and that he knew of their continuing relationship. In July of 1989, the defendant told Robertson he was going to kill his wife by getting her drunk and shooting her as she slept. Robertson recounted that on one occasion he was at the defendant's trailer when Stephenson indicated that he was going to "do it." The defendant then went into the room where his wife was sleeping but returned a short time later and confessed that he could not.

Around the end of November 1989, Stephenson introduced Robertson to Ralph Thompson and tried to persuade Robertson to give Thompson a job at J.I.T. Express or set him up in a wood pallet company "[a]fter they take care of the business," to which Thompson responded, "Well, I'm not going to take the heat." Stephenson replied, "If anything happens, I'll take the heat." A few days later, Stephenson told Robertson that he and Thompson "were going to take care of it soon."

On the fatal night, Sunday, December 3, 1989, Michael Litz testified he and Ralph Thompson were watching movies at Thompson's house when the defendant came by and ostensibly took Thompson to an "interview" at Robertson's house. Robertson's version was that, around 8:15 p.m. that night, the defendant and Thompson arrived at his house and asked him to help Thompson get a job at Transco Leasing Corporation. The two men stayed at Robertson's house fifteen to twenty minutes. As they were leaving, the defendant told Robertson, "If anyone asks, I was here from 8:15 until 9:45."

Robertson testified that at approximately 7:30 the next morning, the defendant called him at work and told him, "Well, Ralph and I did it last night." Around midmorning the defendant called again to ask if members of the T.B.I. or sheriff's department had been by. Later that afternoon when Lisa's death was known, J.I.T. Express had the defendant flown home from Ohio, where he had gone on a company trip. Robertson picked him up at the Knoxville airport. During the ride back to Morristown, the defendant again told Robertson that he and Thompson "had done it" on Sunday night with a high powered gun or rifle and that he had thrown the bullets out as he drove through Kentucky. As he and Robertson passed near Strawberry Plains on the return trip, Stephenson also threw out the shirt he was wearing because he had carried the bullets in that shirt and feared it might have gunpowder on it. The defendant reminded Robertson, and later Robertson's wife, who was Julie Webb's sister, to tell the sheriff that he and Thompson had been at Robertson's house from 8:15 until 9:45.

Julie Webb testified that on the Sunday before Lisa's death, she had been with the defendant when he purchased some bullets he said were for Thompson. Proof was introduced that Thompson had a 30/30 caliber Winchester rifle in his possession at...

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