State v. Vann

Decision Date21 September 1998
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee, Appellee, v. Gussie Willis VANN, Appellant.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Brock Mehler, Nashville, Ashley L. Ownby, Cleveland (Trial and On Appeal), Kenneth Miller, Cleveland (Trial Only), for Appellant.

John Knox Walkup, Attorney General and Reporter, Michael E. Moore, Solicitor General, John P. Cauley, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, Jerry N. Estes, District Attorney General, Athens, for Appellee.


DROWOTA, Justice.

In this capital case, the defendant, Gussie Willis Vann, was convicted of first degree felony murder in the perpetration of aggravated rape, and two counts of incest. In the sentencing hearing, the jury found three aggravating circumstances: (1) "[t]he murder was committed against a person less than twelve (12) years of age and the defendant was eighteen (18) years of age or older;" (2) "[t]he defendant was previously convicted of one (1) or more felonies, other than the present charge, whose statutory elements involve the use of violence to the person;" and (3) "[t]he murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse beyond that necessary to produce death." Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(1), (2), and (5) (1991 Repl.). Finding that the three aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury sentenced the defendant to death by electrocution.

On direct appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the defendant challenged both his conviction and sentence, raising eleven claims of error, some with numerous subparts. After fully considering the defendant's claims, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. Thereafter, pursuant to Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-206(a)(1) (1997 Repl.), 1 the case was docketed in this Court.

The defendant raised numerous issues in this Court, but after carefully examining the entire record and the law, including the thorough opinion of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the briefs of the defendant and the State, this Court, on December 15, 1997, entered an Order setting the cause for oral argument at the January 1998, term of Court in Knoxville, and limiting oral argument to eight issues. See Tenn. S.Ct. R. 12. 2

For the reasons explained below, we have determined that none of the alleged errors affirmatively appear to have affected the verdict of guilt or the sentence imposed. Moreover, the evidence supports the jury's findings as to aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and the sentence of death is not disproportionate or arbitrary. Accordingly, the defendant's convictions for first degree murder and incest 3 and the sentence of death by electrocution are affirmed.


The proof presented by the State at the guilt phase of this trial established that on July 30, 1992, at approximately 11:39 p.m., Bernice Vann, the defendant's wife, made an emergency call to 911. She reported that her eight-year-old daughter, Necia Vann had fallen in the bedroom with a rope around her neck and was not breathing. The paramedics arrived at the scene at 11:54 to find Bernice Vann crying hysterically on the front porch. The defendant was inside the mobile home holding the victim and attempting to perform CPR. Except for a blanket covering his lap, the defendant was nude. The defendant told the paramedics that he was not sure what had happened, but that earlier in the evening the victim had been eating popcorn. He had left to go to the market, and the unconscious victim had been discovered in her room by his wife shortly after his return. He said the victim possibly had choked on popcorn.

The victim, clothed only in panties, had no vital signs when the paramedics arrived on the scene. Despite their efforts to revive her, the victim was pronounced dead upon her arrival at the hospital. Dr. Robert L. Martin, the attending emergency room physician, performed a post-mortem examination of the victim's body, which paramedic Robert West observed. The victim's panties were removed and a broken gold necklace fell onto the examination table. Both West and Dr. Martin observed bruises on the victim's neck and a slight tear at the opening of her vagina. West testified that he observed a small trace of blood near the tear. Both West and Dr. Martin described the victim's anus as extremely dilated, with no muscle tone, indicating multiple episodes of anal penetration over a prolonged period of time. Dr. Martin testified that in his prior fifteen years practicing obstetrics and gynecology, he had never seen the anus of a female child in such a condition. Dr. Martin testified that he did not discover a "hangman's fracture" on the victim's neck, indicating the victim had been strangled rather than hanged. Dr. Martin described Bernice Vann as visibly upset, and the defendant as "totally nonchalant" when informed of their daughter's death. When asked by Dr. Martin what had happened, the defendant replied that he had gone out for cigarettes and did not know. Photographs of the victim's vaginal and anal openings were admitted into evidence.

Also admitted into evidence was a statement given by the defendant to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Agent Richard Brogan in which the defendant said that from about 4:30 p.m. on the afternoon of July 30, he, his wife, and their four children (including the victim) had watched videotaped movies on their television. They had eaten popcorn as they watched the movies. Later in the evening the victim had gone into her bedroom. The defendant had gone to a local convenience store and purchased cigarettes and two pieces of "Chico" candy. Upon returning home, he undressed to take a shower and then heard his wife screaming from the other room. He ran into the hallway and saw his wife carrying the victim in her arms. After taking the victim into his arms and determining that she was not breathing, the defendant told his wife to go to a neighbor's house to call 911. 4 The defendant began performing CPR on the victim. Shortly thereafter, Bernice Vann returned to the residence, along with a neighbor. Bernice Vann obtained a blanket for the defendant since he had not been able to dress before beginning CPR on the victim. The defendant said he had ridden in the front of the ambulance on the way to the hospital and did not ask his wife what had happened until they arrived at the hospital. According to the defendant, Bernice Vann said she had found the victim sitting beside her dresser with a rope tied around her neck. The defendant said the victim had never given him any indication that she wanted to hang herself. The defendant also volunteered information to police that the victim often spent the night with an uncle, a male friend of his, and a person named Linda Rogers, with whom he had been having an affair.

Ruby Crittenden, clerk at the "Mr. Zip" convenience store where the defendant purportedly purchased cigarettes and candy on the night of the murder testified that she did not recall whether or not the defendant had come into the store that evening. Cash register tapes for the time the defendant claimed to have been at the store did not reflect a purchase of the items he claimed to have bought.

Jerry Tate, a criminal investigator with the McMinn County Sheriff's Department, testified that he had been dispatched to the emergency room to investigate the purported suicide of the eight-year-old victim in this case. Upon viewing her body, Tate noticed red marks around her neck, her severely enlarged anus, the tear at the opening of her vagina, and blood near the victim's vaginal opening. As a result of his observations, Tate asked Dr. Martin to obtain rape kit samples from the victim's body. Tate then obtained verbal consent from Bernice Vann and the defendant to visit their home and investigate the victim's death. Tate described the mobile home as dirty and unsanitary. Upon inspection, he found a strip of bed sheet tied to a knob on a drawer of a dresser in the victim's bedroom. Tate noticed that the knot was very tight, signifying that perhaps an adult, rather than a child, had tied the knot. Tate found another sheet with a portion torn from it in a back bedroom. Tate seized as evidence the two torn sheets, the sheets from the victim's bed, and some of the victim's clothing. Approximately two weeks later, after the defendant and Bernice Vann had been arrested for the murder, rape, and incest of Necia Vann, 5 Tate obtained a warrant to search the Vann residence. During the ensuing search, a pornographic videotape, various pornographic magazines, unopened packages of condoms, a partially used jar of petroleum jelly, a rope tied into a noose, and the victim's dresser were seized. These items, along with the rape kit samples from the victim, the items seized in the consent search, samples of blood, saliva, pubic hair, head hair, and a penile swab obtained from the defendant's person the morning after the victim's death, and similar samples obtained from Bernice Vann during the two weeks preceding the arrest, were submitted to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (T.B.I.) for testing and analysis.

Linda Littlejohns, a T.B.I crime laboratory expert in the trace evidence section, testified that she had conducted a physical comparison of the torn bed sheet found in the victim's bedroom and the portion of sheet found in the back bedroom. According to her analysis, the parts had at one time been joined. She found no trace evidence on the torn sheet or on the anal swab taken from the victim, however, which related to the partially used container of petroleum jelly or unopened condoms found in the defendant's residence.

Raymond Depriest, a T.B.I. expert in serology, testified that his analysis of a pair of jeans and a t-shirt believed to have been worn by the victim on the day of the murder, a blue and white jumper, the victim's...

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  • State v. Reid
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    ...conclusion may be drawn that the evidence will be found in the place for which the warrant authorizes a search. State v. Vann, 976 S.W.2d 93, 105 (Tenn.1998); State v. Longstreet, 619 S.W.2d 97, 99 (Tenn.1981). In addition, the affidavit must contain information which will allow a magistrat......
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