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DENVER RAY HICKSON v. STATE OF MISSISSIPPI

JUNE 05, 1985

DENVER RAY HICKSON
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI



BEFORE PATTERSON, C.J.; PRATHER AND ROBERTSON, JJ.

ROBERTSON, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

I.

This case begins with the unexplained disappearance of a young prostitute from the Mississippi Gulf Coast back in April of 1982. A month later a group of youths swimming playfully in Thompson Creek in Wayne County have an eerie encounter with a wrapped and weighted body. The case moves from the morbid to the macabre as the prosecuting attorney displayed to the jury the deformed hands of the deceased, pickled in a jar of formaldehyde.

 For the reasons to be explained below, we regard that the interjection of the victim's hands into the proceedings was so prejudicial that the accused was deprived of his right to a fair trial. We reverse.

 II.

 On or about April 18, 1982, Susan Carol Johnston Culipher was strangled to death. After she was dead, Culipher's body was apparently shot in the ribcage, for reasons unknown. Her body was then placed in a sort of envelope made of burlap croaker sacks that were half filled with sand and gravel. These sacks were also wrapped in chicken wire and tied with copper wire. So wrapped, Culipher's body was then sunk in Thompson Creek in Wayne County, Mississippi. While swimming in Thompson Creek with some friends on May 21, 1982, James West happened upon the body which on removal was found in a partially decomposed state.

 To facilitate identification the State's pathologist severed the head and hands. These in turn were examined at the State Crime Lab for dental and/or fingerprint identification purposes, After a lengthy investigative process - which included running in the newspaper composite police drawings of what it was thought the victim looked like before decomposition had set in - the deceased was identified as Culipher. Once this identification had been established, and upon further police investigation, two friends of Culiphers - Denver Ray Hickson and his girlfriend, Patricia Ann Criddle - were, on July 3, 1982, arrested and charged

 with murder. Hickson was the Defendant below and is the Appellant here. In September of 1982, Hickson and Criddle were indicted for the murder of Susan Carol Johnston Culipher. Criddle pled guilty to manslaughter before Hickson's trial.

 On January 30, 1983, this case was called for trial in the Circuit Court of Wayne County. During voir dire of the special venire, Hickson was led into the court room in handcuffs and seated. Some thirty minutes thereafter, defense counsel moved for a mistrial based upon the prejudice said to have accrued from the jury seeing Hickson in handcuffs, but his motion was denied. Instead, Hickson was led out of the courtroom, the handcuffs removed, and he was then brought back in. *fn1

 The State's evidence at trial showed how Culipher was killed but not why. Culipher had apparently been living in Gulfport as a prostitute, The proof was essentially that Hickson, Criddle and Culipher had left Gulfport together on April 17 or 18, 1982. Culipher had taken a blue suitcase with her that was placed in the trunk of Hickson's car. No one ever saw Culipher again alive. The blue suitcase was later found in Hickson's dwelling. Potato sacks and wire - similar to those used in the disposal of Culipher's body - were found in Hickson's possession. The bullet in Culipher's body came from a gun which apparently was sold to someone else by Hickson. Hickson is said to have described - without specific reference to Culipher - the method in which her body was disposed of and stated that if someone wanted to get rid of a body that would be an ideal method. Further, witnesses stated that Hickson had told them that they would "never" see Culipher again.

 While examining the pathologist who performed the autopsy of Culipher, the district attorney took from a box and held up in front of the jury a glass jar containing the "pickled" hands of the victim - recall that the hands and head had been severed from the body and sent to the State Crime Lab primarily in connection with the State's effort to identify the body. Hickson moved for a mistrial citing the inflammatory effect of exposing the jury to these gruesome pieces of the corpse, but the motion was overruled. The hands were marked for identification but were never received into evidence. The district attorney requested that the "pickled hands" be received in evidence but withdrew the request, because apparently the jar was leaking formaldehyde. Color photographs of the hands and partially decomposed corpse were in evidence.

 At the conclusion of all of the evidence, the jury, on

 January 21, 1983, found Hickson guilty of murder. Miss. Code Ann. 97-3-19 (1)(a)(Supp.1984). Thereafter, the Circuit Court determined that Hickson was a recidivist within Miss, Code Ann 99-19-83 (Supp.1984) and sentenced Hickson to life imprisonment without possibility of probation or parole,

 In due course thereafter Hickson filed a motion denominated "Motion For A New Trial" , which, because it challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, is in reality an alternative motion for judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict of the jury or for a new trial. In any event, on February 4, 1983, the motion was overruled, and this appeal has followed

 III

 At oral argument defense counsel earnestly and ably urged that the proceedings below had resulted in a miscarriage of justice in that an innocent man has been convicted, Our review of the record convinces us otherwise

 Testing the evidence under our familiar standards, see May v. State, 460 So.2d 778, 781 (Miss 1984), we hold that there is in this record evidence of such quality and weight that, having in mind the beyond a reasonable doubt burden of proof standard, fair-minded jurors in the exercise of impartial judgment might conclude that Hickson was guilty. Accordingly, the Circuit Court correctly denied Hickson's request for a peremptory instruction and overruled his subsequent motion for j.n.o.v. See Pharr v. State, 465 So 2d 294, 301 (Miss, 1984); Williams v, State, 463 So, 2d 1064, 1067-1068 (Miss.1985).

 By the same token, and by reference to the evidence summarized in Section II above, we may say with confidence that the Circuit Court was well within its discretion when it overruled Hickson's motion for a new trial insofar as that motion challenges the weight of the evidence. See ...


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