Williams v. State

Decision Date09 April 2001
Docket NumberNo. D-99-654.,D-99-654.
Citation2001 OK CR 9,22 P.3d 702
PartiesSterling Bernard WILLIAMS, Appellant, v. STATE of Oklahoma, Appellee.
CourtUnited States State Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma. Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma

Julia L. O'Connell, Richard L. Clark, Barry L. Derryberry, Assistant Public Defenders, Tulsa, OK, Counsel for Appellant, at trial.

William LaFortune, District Attorney, Mark L. Collier, Assistant District Attorney, Tulsa, OK, Counsel for the Appellant, at trial.

Barry L. Derryberry, Gretchen L. Garner, Assistant Public Defenders, Tulsa, OK, Counsel for Appellant, on appeal.

W.A. Drew Edmondson, Attorney General Of Oklahoma, Jennifer B. Miller, Assistant Attorney General, Oklahoma City, Ok, Counsel for the State, on appeal.


LUMPKIN, Presiding Judge:

s 1 Appellant Sterling Bernard Williams was tried by jury and convicted of First Degree Murder (Count I) (21 O.S.1991, § 701.7) and Assault and Battery with Intent to Kill, After Former Conviction of Two Felonies (Count II) (21 O.S.Supp.1992, § 652), Case No. CF-97-2385, in the District Court of Tulsa County. In Count I, the jury found the existence of four (4) aggravating circumstances and recommended the punishment of death. In Count II, the jury recommended as punishment ninety-nine (99) years imprisonment. The trial court sentenced accordingly. From this judgment and sentence Appellant has perfected this appeal.1

s 2 Appellant was convicted of the pre-meditated murder of LeAnna Hand and of the assault and battery with intent to kill on her roommate Elizabeth Hill. In May of 1997, Appellant worked as an independent contractor for Willard Enterprises Colorado Choice Meat Company. He had sold Hand meat on prior occasions. On May 14, 1997, Appellant phoned Hand and said he had some free meat he was going to give away and that he would bring it by her home. At approximately 11:00 a.m., Hill was in her room dressing when she heard a knock at the front door. A moment later, she heard the answering machine on the telephone click on. Hill picked up the phone in her bedroom and discovered Hand's mother on the line. Hill spoke for just a moment, then she heard Hand call her name from the other room. She opened her bedroom door and saw Hand struggling with Appellant. Hill heard Hand fall to the floor and saw Appellant standing over her body. Hill immediately shut her bedroom door and locked it. She tried to call 9-1-1 but could not get an open phone line. Appellant then kicked down her bedroom door and knocked the phone out of her hand. He told Hill to be quiet. Instead, she screamed and tried to run out of the room. She escaped from her room, but Appellant tackled her in the hallway. He threw her to the ground, climbed on top of her, and put both hands around her neck. Despite Appellant's attempts to choke Hill, she fought back and was able to free herself and run out of the front door of the duplex.

s 3 Hill was running to a neighbor's home when the manager of a nearby apartment complex, Carol Gorman, saw her and waved her over. Gorman observed bloody hand prints on Hill's neck. Meanwhile, as soon as Hill ran out of the duplex, Appellant also left. He walked to his car parked in the driveway of the duplex and drove away.

s 4 The police arrived at the scene to find Hand dead in her living room. She had suffered a seven inch stab wound to her chest. The knife cut through her ribs, through a portion of her left lung, completely through her heart and into her right lung. The knife was still in her body, tangled in her clothes. Near the victim the police found a box from the Colorado Choice Meat Company, a roll of duct tape, a baseball cap with the company logo, and a pair of gloves. Nothing was missing from the duplex, including cash Hill had left on her bed.

s 5 On the same day, Appellant phoned his employer and said he had just killed a girl and had to go to Chicago to hide out. Appellant withdrew money from his back account. Appellant also phoned his girlfriend, Consuela Drew, and told her he was going to jail. An all points bulletin was issued containing a description of Appellant's car. The next day, May 15, 1997, Ms. Drew again spoke with Appellant and told him to turn himself in to the police. That same day Appellant was stopped by authorities in Alexandria, Louisiana. He had a serious cut to the index finger on his left hand, and scratches on his neck, face and chest. Appellant cooperated with the officers and asked that the $121 dollars taken from him be given to his children.

s 6 A t-shirt retrieved from Appellant later tested positive for Hand's DNA. The knife found at the murder scene was found to match a butcher block set of knives in Appellant's home.

s 7 At trial, the defense offered no evidence during the guilt stage. During the second stage of trial, the State presented evidence to support four aggravating circumstances. This evidence consisted of two Judgment and Commitment Orders from the State of Arkansas indicating Appellant's prior convictions for rape, kidnapping, burglary, and first degree battery. The State's evidence also showed that on separate occasions, Appellant had attacked girlfriend, Yolanda Cunningham; broken into the home of Mike Applebury and attacked him with a baseball bat; and made obscene threatening phone calls to Michelle Sauser.

s 8 During the second stage, the defense argued Appellant suffered from several mental health difficulties, including bipolar disorder and a sexual disorder. Expert witness testimony was offered to show that Appellant's family had a history of severe substance abuse and poor anger control. Evidence also showed Appellant suffered from childhood physical abuse at the hands of his father. Expert witness testimony showed Appellant went to Hand's home intending only to rape her, not kill her, and that his mental disorders caused him to panic when Hand resisted and he stabbed her only intending to silence her.

s 9 Appellant raises twenty (20) propositions of error in his appeal. These propositions will be addressed in the order in which they arose at trial.


s 10 In his first assignment of error, Appellant contends the trial court erred in excusing prospective juror Downey for cause. "The proper standard for determining when a prospective juror may be excluded for cause because of his or her views on capital punishment is whether the juror's views would `prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.'" Patton v. State, 973 P.2d 270, 281-282 (Okl.Cr.1998),cert. denied, 528 U.S. 939, 120 S.Ct. 347, 145 L.Ed.2d 271 (1999) quoting Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 424, 105 S.Ct. 844, 852, 83 L.Ed.2d 841 (1985). A juror's bias need not be proved with "unmistakable clarity;" neither must the juror express an intention to vote against the death penalty "automatically." Id. at 282. Determination of a juror's bias often cannot be reduced to a question and answer session. Id. Despite the lack of clarity in the written record, there are situations where the trial judge is left with the definite impression that a prospective juror would be unable to faithfully and impartially apply the law. Id. This Court will look to the entirety of the juror's voir dire examination to determine if the trial court properly excused the juror for cause. Id. As the trial court personally observes the jurors and their responses, this Court will not disturb its decision absent an abuse of discretion. Id.

s 11 When asked by the trial court whether she could be an impartial juror, Ms. Downey replied she didn't think she could because she did not believe in the death penalty. She stated it would bother her the rest of her life to impose the death penalty. The trial court then attempted to clarify the issue by stating that the issue was not whether it would bother her, but whether her views were such that it would prevent her or substantially impair her from imposing the death penalty, should the law and the evidence warrant. Ms. Downey answered in the affirmative. She was then excused for cause. (Tr. Vol.III, pg.309-310).

s 12 Specifically, Appellant contends it was never ascertained whether or not Ms. Downey could follow the law despite her views or set them aside. Appellant argues it was error for the trial court to ask whether the prospective juror's views would substantially impair her from imposing the death penalty. He contends this is not the equivalent of asking whether her views would substantially impair her from following the law.

s 13 The Oklahoma Uniform Jury Instructions â Criminal set forth the questions and answers a trial judge should ask when death qualifying a jury. See OUJI-CR (2d) 1-5. The uniform instructions do not include the "substantially impair" language. While the better approach in examining potential jurors regarding the punishments in a capital murder case is to use the voir dire questions in the order set forth in the uniform instructions, we find the manner in which the trial court conducted voir dire in this case was not error. See Brown v. State, 989 P.2d 913, 923 (Okl.Cr.1998). The trial court's questions to Ms. Downey sufficiently established that she could neither consider nor impose the death penalty in a case where the evidence and law warranted its imposition. Her unequivocal statements that she did not believe in and would not impose the death penalty under any circumstances allowed the trial court to determine whether her views would prevent or substantially impair the performance of her duties. See Patton, 973 P.2d at 282-283; Le v. State, 947 P.2d 535, 545 (Okl.Cr.1997), cert. denied, 524 U.S. 930, 118 S.Ct. 2329, 141 L.Ed.2d 702 (1998). While the trial court did not specifically ask Ms. Downey whether she could follow the law despite her beliefs or set those beliefs aside, it is clear from her responses to other questions that she was irrevocably committed to vote...

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