Underwood v. State

Decision Date12 February 1998
Docket NumberNo. 95-DP-00866-SCT,95-DP-00866-SCT
Citation708 So.2d 18
PartiesJustin UNDERWOOD v. STATE of Mississippi.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Edward Blackmon, Blackmon Blackmon & Evans, Canton, for Appellant.

Michael C. Moore, Attorney General, Marvin L. White, Jr., Assistant Attorney General En Banc.

Leslie S. Lee, Sp. Asst. Attorney General, Jackson, for Appellee.

SULLIVAN, Presiding Justice, for the Court:


¶1 Justin Underwood was indicted for capital murder by the grand jury for Madison County during the March Term of 1994. The indictment charged that Underwood had murdered Virginia Ann Harris on or about February 15, 1994, by shooting her with a pistol, during the course of kidnapping, in violation of Miss.Code Ann. § 97-3-19(2)(e). Underwood pleaded not guilty and proceeded to trial on May 22, 1995, in the Circuit Court of Madison County. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of capital murder on May 24. The sentencing phase of the trial was held on the following day, and the jury found that Underwood should be sentenced to death. Circuit Judge John B. Toney entered the final judgment of conviction and sentence on May 25, and ordered that Underwood be put to death by lethal injection on July 7, 1995. Following denial of his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or in the alternative for a new trial, Underwood perfected his appeal to this Court.


¶2 On February 15, 1994, Lindsay Harris spoke with his wife, Virginia Ann Harris, before leaving their home in Flora to travel to his produce business at the Farmer's Market in Jackson. Mrs. Harris asked her husband to eat dinner in Jackson on his way home from work, because she planned to do some shopping in Jackson that day. Mr. Harris agreed, told his wife goodbye, and left for work at about 6:00 a.m. He worked from 6:30 a.m. until closing time at 4:00 p.m., when he loaded a delivery order in his truck and left for Flora at about 4:30 p.m.

¶3 When Mr. Harris arrived at his house, he saw his wife's car, a blue Lincoln Towncar, in the garage, but when he entered the home and called her name, there was no answer. He noticed that the lights and television were on in the den, and the curtains were drawn. Walking back to their bedroom, Mr. Harris saw that Mrs. Harris's makeup drawer was pulled open, the lights were on, and a makeup bottle was left upside down on the counter. Mr. Harris and his son Kyle both testified that it was unlike Mrs. Harris to leave the house in such a condition.

¶4 At about 5:00 p.m., Mr. Harris changed clothes and left to go feed his cattle. When he returned, Mrs. Harris still wasn't home. He showered and dressed for bed, and by 8:00 p.m. he was extremely worried about his wife. He started calling family and friends, but no one knew where she was. At midnight Mr. Harris called the police and reported Mrs. Harris as a missing person. At 12:30 or 1:00 a.m., Officer Ogden Wilson arrived at the Harris home and filled out a missing person report, which he forwarded to the sheriff's department.

¶5 At 1:30 a.m. Mr. Harris called his son Kyle and told him that Mrs. Harris was still missing. Kyle came over immediately, and the two conducted a search of the house and yard. On their way back into the house through the garage, Kyle noticed that the keys to Mrs. Harris's Lincoln were in the ignition. They also discovered Mrs. Harris's purse on the floor of the front passenger side of the car, which was not Mrs. Harris's custom. Kyle testified that his mother normally kept her purse on the seat beside her. There was no money in the purse, which was unusual for Mrs. Harris, who usually carried at least $40 with her at all times. The only unlocked car door was the driver's door, indicating that only one person had exited the car, because when the ignition was turned, all of the doors automatically locked. The front seat of the car was pushed back to its furthermost position, which was also out of character for Mrs. Harris. Mr. Harris testified that he was 5'9", and his feet didn't touch the pedals in Mrs. Harris's car with the seat that far back. Charles Scarborough, Master Sergeant Trooper with the Mississippi Highway Patrol, testified that he was 5'11" and would not be comfortable with the seat in that position. Mr. Harris also testified ¶6 At 6:00 a.m. on February 16, the highway patrol, police, and sheriff's department were contacted, and detectives began arriving at the Harris home to take over the investigation. Sergeant Scarborough lifted fingerprints and fibers from Mrs. Harris's Lincoln and took pictures of the car. Only two latent prints of value were lifted from the car, and neither were matched with anyone, including the defendant, Justin Underwood. The fibers taken from Mrs. Harris's car similarly were not linked to anyone, including Underwood. Sergeant Judy Tucker with the Mississippi Highway Patrol Investigation Bureau was called to head up the investigation. Mr. Harris described to Sergeant Tucker the state of the house as he found it on the evening of February 15. He also showed her Mrs. Harris's pill box with two of five pills missing from her February 15 doses, her diet log book showing that she had consumed only two glasses of water on the morning of February 15, and a shopping list left on the kitchen counter of items that Mrs. Harris planned to buy in Jackson on February 15. Based upon the state of the house when Mr. Harris arrived home on February 15, Sergeant Tucker determined that Mrs. Harris had not left the house of her own free will.

that he believed the Lincoln was parked in the garage differently than Mrs. Harris usually parked it. Nothing was missing from the house, other than possibly some cash from Mrs. Harris's purse. At this point, Mr. Harris and Kyle agreed that Mrs. Harris must have been kidnapped.

¶7 Sergeant Tucker contacted her supervisors for further instructions, and a search of the area was organized, including an aerial search. The investigators discovered that Mrs. Harris had missed her 11:15 appointment at Jenny Craig Weight Loss Centre and her afternoon nail appointment at Mona's Nails in Jackson. Mona's had called the Harris home at 2:30 p.m. on February 15 with no response. With the help of Mrs. Harris's daughter-in-law, Lynette Harris, they determined that Mrs. Harris's red house shoes, blue robe, and a wide black belt were missing.

¶8 Around 4:40 p.m. in the afternoon on February 16, Webb Bozeman informed authorities that two of his employees had seen Mrs. Harris's car backed into a cattle gap on his property on old Highway 49, approximately 1.5 miles from the Harris home, between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. on February 15. Testimony at trial placed Underwood's car, or one very similar to it, in a driveway near the Harris home on February 15 at approximately 10:00 or 10:30 a.m. Based upon the tip from Mr. Bozeman's employees, Sergeant Tucker and other law enforcement officers went to the cattle gap and began searching. At about 5:10, Officer Donny Spell found a black belt in a fire lane on the Bozeman property near Bozeman Lake. Continuing on around the lake shore, at about 5:20, Sergeant Tucker discovered Mrs. Harris's body, clothed in a blue pleated shirt, black knit pants, and red house shoes. Clumps of grass and weeds were clutched in her hands. Mrs. Harris only had foundation makeup on the right side of her face. At trial, Mr. Harris testified that in more than forty years of marriage, his wife had never left the house without having makeup on or without being properly dressed. After contacting the crime scene unit, Sergeant Tucker accompanied Dudley Bozeman to notify Mr. Harris and his family.

¶9 Mrs. Harris had been shot four times. Two of the bullets did not exit Mrs. Harris's body, and these were sent to the Mississippi Crime Lab for testing following the autopsy. One bullet traveled from her back through her right lung, diaphragm, and liver. A second bullet struck the right side of her back and penetrated her right lung. Dr. Steven Hayne, who performed the autopsy, testified that either of these first two gunshot wounds would have individually caused death due to extensive internal bleeding. A third bullet struck Mrs. Harris's left ear, went through the ear, struck and went through the left side of her neck, and struck her front right shoulder. Dr. Hayne testified that this gunshot would not have caused death by itself. The fourth bullet entered the front of Mrs. Harris's left arm and exited the inner arm. This gunshot wound was also nonlethal. All four of the gunshot wounds were distant, meaning that the shots were fired more than 1 1/2 to 2 ¶10 When Mrs. Harris's body was discovered, rigor mortis had set in, indicating that Mrs. Harris had been dead for at least two hours, but no more than forty eight hours. Fly larvae, or maggots, were in both of Mrs. Harris's ears, indicating that she had been dead for at least twelve to twenty four hours. Based upon Sergeant Tucker's testimony that the body was discovered at about 5:20 p.m. on February 16, and Mr. Harris's testimony that he saw his wife alive at about 6:00 a.m. on February 15, this evidence would place the time of death between approximately 6:00 a.m. on February 15, and 5:20 a.m. on February 16. One of the Harris's neighbors, Bill Richardson, testified that he heard three gunshots near Bozeman Lake around 10:15 or 10:20 a.m. on February 15.

feet away, and they occurred at or about the same time. The angles of the gunshot wounds were consistent with Mrs. Harris being on her knees and the shooter standing behind her. Dr. Hayne testified that the manner of Mrs. Harris's death was homicide, and that it would have taken a minimum of fifteen to twenty minutes for Mrs. Harris to die from her wounds.

¶11 In late January or February of 1994, Charlie Palmer, Justin Underwood's uncle, discovered that some items were missing from his home,...

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