Williams v. State

Citation544 So.2d 782
Decision Date07 October 1987
Docket NumberNo. DP-56,DP-56
PartiesJessie Derrell WILLIAMS v. STATE of Mississippi.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi

Page 782

544 So.2d 782
Jessie Derrell WILLIAMS
STATE of Mississippi.
No. DP-56.
Supreme Court of Mississippi.
Oct. 7, 1987.
As Modified On Rehearing June 21, 1989.

Page 783

Thomas M. Fortner, Pascagoula, for appellant.

Edwin Lloyd Pittman, Atty. Gen. by Marvin L. White, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., Jackson, for appellee.

En Banc.

SULLIVAN, Justice, for the Court on Parts I-V; ROY NOBLE LEE, Presiding Justice, for the Court on Part VI.

When, on the evening of January 11, 1983, Karon Ann Pierce entered the Scoreboard Lounge in Jackson County, Mississippi, she set in motion the series of events that would lead to her death and the conviction of Jessie Derrell Williams for the crime of capital murder, and his sentence, by a jury in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, of death.

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The facts of this case are so bizarre and the methods used to bring about the death of Miss Pierce are so relentlessly savage that no purpose will be served by repeating them here, except where they are essential to the ends of justice in dealing with the issues raised by the appeal.



The prosecutor asked at least eighteen individual jurors whether or not they would or will vote guilty if the state proved its case against Jessie Derrell Williams, and whether or not the jurors would or will vote for death if the state proved that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances. Williams urges that such questions were in direct violation of our Uniform Criminal Rules of Circuit Court, Rule 5.02, the text of which reads:

In the voir dire examination of jurors, the attorney shall direct to the entire venire questions only on matters not inquired into by the court. Individual jurors may be examined only when proper to inquire as to answers given or for other good cause allowed by the court. No hypothetical questions requiring any juror to pledge a particular verdict will be asked. (emphasis added)

After repeated objections, the first of which was overruled, the trial judge then instructed the prosecutor to offer a complete and accurate statement of the law if he insisted on posing that question. Despite this admonition, the prosecutor continued with the same form of question at which time the trial judge directed the district attorney to use the verb "could" as opposed to the verb "would". Again the district attorney continued with the same form of the question. Another objection was entered by Williams which was overruled, and the district attorney continued with the "would" form of the question through six more jurors.

We have repeatedly admonished district attorneys that their examination during voir dire should be abstract as opposed to what the juror might or might not do in the particular case at bar. Murphy v. State, 246 So.2d 920, 921 (Miss.1971); McCaskill v. State, 227 So.2d 847, 852 (Miss.1969) (reversed on other grounds); Phenizee v. State, 180 Miss. 746, 178 So. 579, 582 (1938). In Phenizee, Justice Griffith explained:

The examination on the question we are here considering should be in the abstract as to the class of cases, one of which is about to be tried; not what the juror or jury might or might not do in a particular case then and there at bar. It is time enough for the district attorney, in the particular case, to call for the death penalty in his argument on the merits after the jury has heard all of the evidence, and can better judge of the weight of that argument and of the justification of the demand for the death penalty, rather than it shall be emphasized upon the voir dire.

178 So. at 582.

Judge Griffith went on to note however:

We have concluded that, in the light of the matters last mentioned, a jury of fair intelligence, as we must presume this jury was, could not have understood otherwise than that the penalty, whether of death or of life imprisonment, was solely for them to determine, and that no official of the state had a right to dictate to them about it or to do more than submit to the judgment of the jury on that question.... Thus, in this case we think we may safely rest on the conclusion that this jury was neither misled nor wrongfully or unduly influenced by what happened on the voir dire, particularly in view of the evidence on the merits which so strongly justified the extreme penalty.

178 So. at 582.

The trial court's discretion in passing upon the extent and propriety of questions addressed to prospective jurors is not unlimited and this Court will take note of abuse on appeal where prejudice to the

Page 785

accused is present. Jones v. State, 381 So.2d 983, 990 (Miss.1980); McCaskill v. State, 227 So.2d 847, 852 (Miss.1969); Leverett v. State, 112 Miss. 394, 404, 73 So. 273 (1916). A comparison of the abuses found in Leverett which led to reversal with the statements made by the district attorney in the case at bar makes it clear that the case at bar falls under the Phenizee no reversible error present line, as opposed to the obvious abuse present in Leverett.

The court properly condemned the conduct of the district attorney in seeking to force a committal from the jury, but when we consider that conduct, in context with the jury instructions given to the jury by the trial judge, it is clear that the jury was aware of their proper role in determining guilt and sentence, and, that being true in this case, there is no merit to this assignment of error.



Williams objected to the introduction of certain photographs contending that they were unnecessarily enlarged, were gruesome, repetitive and thus prejudicial and inflammatory. The subject matter of those photographs was:

Exhibit 3(A), the heart and larynx of the victim, separated from the body at autopsy;

Exhibit 3(B) and (C), upper portions of the victim's body at autopsy;

Exhibit 4(A), Pierce's body as found at the scene of the murder;

Exhibits 4(B), (C), (D), (E), close up views of the chest area at autopsy;

Exhibits 5(A), (B), (C), (D), enlarged close up views of the wound to the genital area.

While acknowledging that generally the admissibility of photographs is within the sound discretion of the trial judge and the admission is proper, so long as their introduction serves some useful evidentiary purpose. Williams contends that the close-up photographs were not necessary for the jury's understanding of the cause of death nor was the repetitive nature, and the result could only be to inflame and prejudice the jury.

We have repeatedly admitted photographs of every description with the explanation that some "probative value" is present. Johnson v. State, 476 So.2d 1195, 1206 (Miss.1985); Swanier v. State, 473 So.2d 180, 185 (Miss.1985); Cabello v. State, 471 So.2d 332, 341 (Miss.1985); Holliday v. State, 455 So.2d 750, 752 (Miss.1984); Billiot v. State, 454 So.2d 445, 460 (Miss.1984). Abuse of discretion is sometimes explained to be admission of photographs when a killing is not contradicted or denied or the corpus delicti and the identity of the deceased have been established. Sharp v. State, 446 So.2d 1008, 1009 (Miss.1984); Shearer v. State, 423 So.2d 824, 827 (Miss.1982); Williams v. State, 354 So.2d 266, 267 (Miss.1978).

A review of our case law indicates that the discretion of the trial judge runs toward almost unlimited admissibility regardless of the gruesomeness, repetitiveness, and the extenuation of probative value. At this point in the development of our case law, no meaningful limits exist in these so-called balance of probative/prejudicial effect of photographs test.

This assignment of error is no basis for reversal.



The underlying felony the prosecutor sought to prove in this case was kidnapping. He, therefore, relied heavily on the expert medical opinions of Dr. Hernandez to prove that Miss Pierce's inability to consent in her drugged state supported a finding that she had been kidnapped. The subject matter of that testimony included:

Page 786

(1) The effects of PCP and methaqualone on a person;

(2) The potentiation effect of PCP and methaqualone on a person;

(3) The effect of PCP, methaqualone, alcohol, and marijuana on Karon Pierce;

(4) The ability of Pierce to make rational judgments while under the influence of the above listed substances.

Dr. Hernandez also answered a hypothetical question posed by the prosecutor which Williams maintains contained far too many uncertainties and unknowns to have properly been placed before the jury.

Dr. Hernandez explained that "potentiation" is medical terminology meaning the use of two medications or chemicals in combination, which increased the effect of one or both. When he was questioned about the process of potentiation with use of alcohol and methaqualone, Williams objected on the grounds that there was no evidence of Miss Pierce taking methaqualone on the night of her death or within any reasonable time period prior to her death as the toxicologist had refused to offer any opinion as to the time or amount of any ingestion of that drug by Miss Pierce. Only a trace amount of methaqualone was found in her system, which could have been ingested at any time prior to the incident. This objection was overruled.

Dr. Hernandez was asked the following hypothetical:

I would like to pose a hypothetical, and based on these facts I want to know if you can draw a conclusion. The subject is an 18 year old girl, 5' 4" tall, weighing 118 pounds. She was staggering and her speech was slurred. She was coherent one minute and incoherent the next. She was hollering and telling people to leave her alone. Inside her body was discovered traces of PCP, methaqualone, and...

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