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NATHANIEL GRIFFIN v. STATE OF MISSISSIPPI

MARCH 04, 1987

NATHANIEL GRIFFIN
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI



BEFORE HAWKINS, P.J., ROBERTSON AND SULLIVAN, JJ.

SULLIVAN, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

Nathaniel Griffin was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial District of Hinds County. Prior to his trial, a competency hearing was held and the jury found that Griffin was competent to assist his lawyer in preparing his defense and thereby competent to stand trial. He has consolidated these two cases for our consideration on appeal. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm both the competency determination and the murder conviction.

FACTS

 Sometime during the early morning hours of September 22, 1982, Maxine Lewis and Bernice Ratliff were murdered. Their bodies were found near the Natchez Trace at a rest area just south of Interstate 20 in Hinds County. Officer Sammy Magee of the Hinds County Sheriff's Department investigated the crime and learned that the victims were last seen with Nathaniel Griffin. Griffin was subsequently arrested in Vicksburg and a search of the residence where he was staying uncovered a .22 calibre revolver. Subsequent ballistic tests conducted by the State Crime Lab confirmed that the revolver was used in the murders. Griffin was later indicted for the murder of Maxine Lewis on February 24, 1983.

 During his incarceration in Hinds County pending trial, Griffin complained of numerous physical ailments and filed

 numerous handwritten motions alleging, among other things, that there was a conspiracy at jail to poison him. Drs. Donald Guild and Charlton Stanley examined Griffin and concluded that he was incompetent to assist counsel and incompetent to stand trial. Griffin was transferred by court order to the Mississippi State Hospital. The staff at the Mississippi State Hospital evaluated Griffin and determined that he was competent to stand trial. Drs. Guild and Stanley disputed this determination and Griffin's attorney filed a motion for a preliminary hearing to determine his competency. The jury, after hearing conflicting medical testimony, found that Griffin was competent to stand trial. *fn1

 A trial on the merits was held on March 12, 1984. Debra Butler, Griffin's girlfriend, testified on behalf of the prosecution and detailed the events leading up to the murder. She stated that after arguing with the victims, Griffin shot Maxine Lewis. Additional forensic evidence confirmed that the gun recovered at the time of the arrest was the murder weapon. At the close of the hearing, the jury found Griffin guilty of the murder of Maxine Lewis and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

 LAW

 As previously noted, Griffin assigns errors from both the competency hearing and the trial on the merits. Accordingly, we will examine each under separate headings.

 THE COMPETENCY HEARING

 I.

 WHETHER ALLEGED CUMULATIVE ERROR AND ALLEGED PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT WAS SUCH THAT THE DEFENDANT WAS DENIED A FAIR COMPETENCY HEARING?

 Griffin points to at least seven alleged errors which

 he claims rendered his competency hearing unfair and in violation of both the United States and our State Constitution. Citing Smith v. State, 457 So. 2d 327 (Miss. 1984), Griffin argues that the cumulative effect of these errors denied him a fair competency hearing. Some of the alleged errors were objected to, while others were not. Regardless, we will briefly discuss the merits of each error.

 Griffin's first alleged error occurred at the close of voir dire when the prosecutor commented that the defendant had assisted his counsel in selecting the jury. Griffin

 argues that this was an improper comment on his demeanor and influenced the jury to believe he was competent regardless of the evidence produced at the hearing.

 We have long held that prosecuting attorneys should refrain from commenting upon the appearance or the demeanor of the defendant at trial. Reed v. State, 197 So. 2d 811 (Miss. 1967). However, we cannot say that the comments in this case prejudiced the defendant. The statements did not criticize the defendant's demeanor nor attempt to vilify him in any way. Rather the comments simply reflected the activity in open court that occurred in front of the jury. The prosecution simply added this to the record in the event of a subsequent appeal. In light of this, we find no merit to Griffin's argument.

 Griffin's next alleged error concerns the mode of cross-examination used by the prosecution during its examination of Dr. Guild. The questions complained of concern the amount of time which Dr. Guild examined Griffin prior to rendering his opinion as to Griffin's competency to stand trial. Griffin argues that the prosecution's examination of Guild amounted to nothing more than a browbeating technique designed to prejudice the jury. We do not agree.

 In Hollins v. State, 340 So. 2d 438, 441 (Miss. 1976), we held that the length of time required for psychological testing was a proper subject for cross-examination. In this case, the subject matter of the cross-examination was both relevant and proper. As such, we cannot find any alleged prejudice that might have occurred to the defendant and therefore find Griffin's argument to be without merit.

 Griffin next argues that Dr. Guild was asked to draw legal rather than psychiatric conclusions during the cross-examination. Under direct examination, Guild testified that his opinion as to Griffin's incompetency was based in part on Griffin's belief that he was a legal expert and that the 270 day rule would prevent him from being tried on these charges. He also stated that he relied on the opinion of Tommy Mayfield, the assistant prosecutor, in determining that Griffin was incompetent to stand trial. On cross-examination, the prosecution asked Guild numerous questions with regard to whether Griffin's beliefs and Mayfield's opinions led to his conclusion that Griffin was incompetent to stand trial.

 In every case where an expert witness is allowed to express an opinion, such witness is subject to

 cross-examination as to the basis of that opinion. City of Laurel v. Upton, 253 Miss. 380, 175 So. 2d 621 (1965). This rule is equally applicable to medical experts. 175 So. 2d at 625. Under this authority, it is clear that the subject matter of the prosecution's cross-examination was proper. The questions were designed to test and examine the basis of Guild's opinion that Griffin was incompetent to stand trial. The questions did not ask the witness to draw legal conclusions but simply asked whether or not Griffin's beliefs and Mayfield's opinion played a role in his final evaluation of Griffin's competency. Accordingly, we find no error here. Griffin next contends that the trial judge erred in allowing Dr. Gray Hillsman to express his opinion about Dr. Guild's diagnosis of Griffin. Griffin argues that such testimony serves only to pit one expert's testimony against another and that this usurped the function of the jury.

 In Belesky v. City of Biloxi, 412 So. 2d 230 (Miss. 1981), we recognized that expert witnesses can consider testimony of other experts in reaching their expert conclusions. Further, in Hollins v. State, 340 So. 2d 438, 441 (Miss. 1976), we addressed a similar argument with the following passage:

 It is argued that the trial court erred in allowing Dr. Stanley to testify as to his opinion of the finding of appellant's expert witness. We hold that these opinions were based upon his expert, independent knowledge of psychology and were used as a substitute for a hypothetical question. Having two different and opposing opinions offered by two experts, it was the duty of the jury as the fact-finding body to give such weight as it saw fit to their opinions.

 The testimony in this case is controlled by the authority cited above. Dr. Hillsman listened to Guild's testimony at trial and offered his opinion with regard to whether or not Guild reached the correct diagnosis concerning Griffin's competency. Such testimony did not usurp the function of the jury, rather it gave the jury two opinions which they could give weight to as they saw fit. Again, we find no merit to this argument.

 Additionally, Griffin contends that Dr. Margie Lancaster was allowed to testify outside her field of expertise. Dr. Lancaster was qualified as an expert in neurology. She was asked on direct examination whether or not she had an expert opinion as to whether Griffin was competent to stand trial. She testified that Griffin suffered from no neurological

 abnormalities which would prevent him from assisting counsel at trial. Griffin contends that such testimony was psychiatric rather than ...


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