Watts v. State, 96-DP-01030-SCT.

Citation733 So.2d 214
Decision Date28 January 1999
Docket NumberNo. 96-DP-01030-SCT.,96-DP-01030-SCT.
PartiesJames Earnest WATTS a/k/a "Squirrel" v. STATE of Mississippi.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi

733 So.2d 214

James Earnest WATTS a/k/a "Squirrel"
STATE of Mississippi

No. 96-DP-01030-SCT.

Supreme Court of Mississippi.

January 28, 1999.

Rehearing Denied May 6, 1999.

733 So.2d 218
Morris Sweatt, Columbia, John Holdridge, Attorneys for Appellant

Office of the Attorney General by Leslie S. Lee, Attorney for Appellee.


McRAE, Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. James Earnest Watts was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death in the Circuit Court of Marion County on August 9, 1996, by a jury impaneled in the Circuit Court of Lincoln County. He now appeals to this Court, raising twenty assignments of error. Most of the issues he raises are procedurally barred or otherwise waived. We find that the circuit court failed to properly instruct the jury regarding the three sentencing options available in capital murder cases pursuant to Miss.Code Ann. § 97-3-21(1994), and therefore reverse as to the sentencing phase. There is no merit to the remaining issues raised. Accordingly, we affirm the jury's finding that Watts was guilty of capital murder and reverse and remand for re-sentencing proceedings, consistent with this opinion.


¶ 2. The semi-nude body of ten-year-old Vanessa Nicole Lumpkin was found stuffed in the roots of a tree along a creek bank in Columbia, Mississippi around noon on December 20, 1993. Alex Fairley discovered the body while taking a short cut home from the nearby Hendricks Street Apartments, known as "the projects." He ran back to the apartments, showed his friends what he had seen, and Ruby Lewis called the police. Just a few minutes earlier, police had received a report that the child was missing.

¶ 3. Officers Tim Singley and Doug Brewton of the Columbia Police Department were the first to arrive at the scene. They immediately roped off the area around the body. Detective Carroll Bryant, along with Detective James Carney, next arrived. Detective Bryant indicated that the ground was scuffled, but there was nothing from which a footprint could be cast. There was very little blood on or around the body. A little green shirt that the child had been wearing when she went to bed the night before was found about thirty yards away, west of the projects and the creek, near the Rest Haven Cemetery.

¶ 4. Anthony Lumpkin identified his daughter's body at the scene. Marion County Coroner Norma Williamson took measures to protect the body from contamination, wrapping it in a sheet before she moved it. Rigor mortis had set in. Both Williamson and Mississippi State Highway Patrol Crime Scene Specialist Don Sumrall indicated that there was a bloody discharge in the genital and rectal areas. Based on the vaginal drainage, Williamson determined that the child appeared to have been sexually abused. She observed marks on the child's neck and what appeared to be ligature marks on her wrists. There was an abrasion on the right side of her chin, and blood on her tongue where she had bitten it.

¶ 5. State Medical Examiner, Dr. Emily Ward, performed an autopsy on the child. Cause of death was found to be cardiorespiratory arrest due to strangulation, air embolism and a perineal laceration. Based on an external examination, Dr. Ward initially had thought the cause of death was strangulation, based on linear abrasions on the neck and petechial hemorrhages on the eyelids. However, an

733 So.2d 219
internal examination revealed that bubbles in the arteries of her heart had caused a fatal air embolism. Tracing the path of bubbles in the bloodstream, Dr. Ward determined that a tear in the vaginal wall was the source of the embolism. Bruising in the perineal area indicated that penetration occurred while the child was still alive. Dr. Ward, however, was unable to determine whether penetration had involved a penis or some other object. She explained that there was very little blood because the child would not have lived long after the vaginal tear occurred. She confirmed Coroner Williamson's observation that the injuries on the child's wrists were caused by some binding

¶ 6. Vanessa Nicole Lumpkin's grandfather, Joe Geeseton, had died at the VA Hospital in Jackson on December 19, 1993. Nicole, along with many other family members and friends, was staying with her grandmother, Ruthelle Geeseton, who lived just around the corner from the Lumpkins. Pauletta Baxter, a close friend of the family who was Watts' estranged girlfriend and mother of his child, had been staying at the Geeseton house because of problems she was having with him. She put Nicole, along with her daughter, Victoria, to bed between midnight and 1:00 a.m. in the back bedroom at the Geeseton house. Mrs. Geeseton awakened at 4:00 a.m. She testified that when she checked on the little girls, she noticed that the closet light, kept on for Baxter's and Watts' daughter, Victoria, was not on and that Nicole wasn't there, but assumed that she had gone home with her parents. Baxter, too, testified that everyone at the Geeseton house assumed that the child was at the Lumpkins' house. The Lumpkins thought she was still asleep at her grandmother's house, since she had been up very late the night before and Gwen Geeseton Lumpkin had left her there when she went home around 1:30 a.m. Anthony Lumpkin stated that when the child stayed at her grandparents, she usually awakened early and walked home, so she had not been missed there. Apparently, no one saw her leave the house. After Lumpkin called the Geeseton house, and it was determined that she was not at either house, Pauletta Baxter called the police to report the child missing.

¶ 7. Anthony Lumpkin suggested to authorities that they question Watts because of the way he watched the child when she danced and because he had seen Watts riding a bicycle that recently had been stolen from her. Detective Bryant testified that they interviewed several other people in addition to Watts, but never came up with any other suspects. David McDaniel, an investigator with the Columbia Police Department, obtained consent from Watts' mother to search Watts' room at her house. There they found the multicolored jacket Watts reportedly had been wearing the evening before and which his mother identified as his, as well as some tennis shoes, a towel and a pillow case. Noting that there had been some rain in the early morning hours of December 20, McDaniel testified that the jacket was still damp.

¶ 8. Willy Carter testified that he had picked Watts up at his house and dropped him off at Hendricks Street, near "the projects" at around midnight and did not see him again until 1:00 or 1:30 p.m. the next day. He stated that it was drizzling and rainy at the time. Catherine Bullock heard Watts "bamming" on the door of her neighbor in "the projects," Pauletta Baxter, at around 12:00 or 12:30 a.m. He was wearing a multi-colored patchwork jacket. She testified that he was acting strange that night, but stayed around for awhile with a group of people who were drinking and shooting off fireworks. He wanted to talk with her about his relationship with Baxter. When he asked her where Baxter was, she told him that she was at the Geeseton's. She testified that he came back about two hours later, stating:

Squirrel left. And when he came back, he was gone I say about two hours. He came back and he said, "Michelle," he
733 So.2d 220
said, "I done something." I said, "What?" And he said, "I done something." He said, "And I need to tell somebody." I said, "Well, what have you did?" But he never told me. And he told me he was about to go home. And at that time Squirrel didn't have on the same clothes that he had on when he left.

He was no longer wearing the multi-colored jacket, and instead was wearing a T-shirt and some kind of jogging pants.

¶ 9. Tyrone Alexander had noticed Watts standing around the apartments that night, "looking kind of strange." Watts' second cousin, Travis Smith, likewise placed him at the projects, near Building D, after midnight, noting that Watts was wearing a multi-colored jacket he hadn't seen before.

¶ 10. Watts was picked up for questioning by police on December 20th. He was questioned by Officer Sumrall and consented to having his clothing examined for evidence. He was wearing stained black shorts, as well as a T-shirt, briefs, socks, sweat pants, sweat shirt, a regular shirt and some overalls. Sumrall did not notice whether any of the clothing touched the floor when Watts removed it. Watts put his underwear in a bag himself. He handed each of the other items as he removed them to Sumrall, who put them in the bags. Sumrall wore gloves while the evidence was being collected.

¶ 11. At the Mississippi State Crime Laboratory, Debbie Haller examined and tested Watts' clothing for blood, seminal fluid, hair, fibers and any other identifying material. Blood stains were identified on the back of the jacket. Stains on the inside front of Watt undershorts, a few inches below the left side of the waistband, tested positive for blood with the possible presence of feces.1 Haller further testified at length about the precautions taken in the laboratory to prevent contamination of evidence being readied for DNA testing. Samples collected from Watts and the victim, as well as samples of stained areas from Watts' jacket and undershorts, were sent to GenTest Laboratories in Metairie, Louisiana for DNA testing. The lab used the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method of amplifying DNA to type genetic material derived from the evidence submitted. From the test results, it was concluded that the victim could not be excluded as the source of the DNA obtained from the blood stain samples taken from Watts' jacket. Watts, however, was excluded as a possible "donor" of the stains on the jacket. As to the samples taken from blood stains on his undershorts, the results indicated a mixture of two types, one consistent with the genetic markers identified as belonging to Watts, and the other, consistent with...

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