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Hartfield v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

January 14, 2014

JOSEPH RONALD HARTFIELD A/K/A RONALD " DREW" HARTFIELD, APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI, APPELLEE

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: LAMAR COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/11/2012. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. MICHAEL R. EUBANKS. TRIAL COURT DISPOSITION: CONVICTED OF CONSPIRACY TO COMMIT MURDER AND SENTENCED TO TWENTY YEARS IN THE CUSTODY OF THE MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS.

FOR APPELLANT: ROBERT GREER WHITACRE.

FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, BY: STEPHANIE BRELAND WOOD.

GRIFFIS, P.J. LEE, C.J., BARNES, ISHEE, ROBERTS AND FAIR, JJ., CONCUR. IRVING, P.J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION, JOINED BY JAMES, J. MAXWELL, J., DISSENTS WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION. CARLTON, J., NOT PARTICIPATING.

OPINION

NATURE OF THE CASE: CRIMINAL - FELONY

EN BANC.

GRIFFIS, P.J.:

[¶1] Joseph Ronald Hartfield (" Hartfield" ) was convicted of conspiracy to murder his wife, Tabitha Hartfield (" Tabitha" ). Hartfield argues that: he was denied his fundamental constitutional right to present a defense by the exclusion of letters written

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by a codefendant; he was erroneously denied a peremptory challenge; his trial was rendered unfair by the admission of " bad acts" evidence; the evidence was insufficient to support the conspiracy conviction; and the verdict was not supported by the weight of evidence. We find reversible error and remand for a new trial.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

[¶2] Hartfield, Natasha Graham (" Graham" ), and Ethan Dixon (" Dixon" ) were charged with the murder of Tabitha and with conspiracy to commit her murder. Dixon pled guilty to the crimes of conspiracy to commit murder and accessory to murder, in exchange for the State's recommendation of a sentence of twenty-five years. Graham was found guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. The supreme court affirmed her conviction. Graham v. State, 120 So.3d 382, 389 (¶ 30) (Miss. 2013).

[¶3] Graham's trial was held on March 26-28, 2012. Id. at 384 (¶ 2). Hartfield's trial was held June 18-20, 2012. Dixon testified at the trials of both Graham and Hartfield.

[¶4] On May 31, 2008, the Lamar County Sheriff's Department received a 911 call from a woman who claimed that she had killed her cousin. Officer Jason Alexander was dispatched to respond to the call. Officer Alexander found Graham walking in the vicinity of the location given. Graham told Officer Alexander that she had killed her cousin, Tabitha, and buried her in the woods. Graham then took Officer Alexander to the location where Tabitha was buried. Officer Alexander then arrested Graham.

[¶5] Officer Alexander asked Officer Matt Henderson to transport Graham to the jail. Officer Henderson testified that, while in route to the jail, Graham made a statement that " Dixon was there and he helped. And Mr. Hartfield was there, but in the house. . . . Hartfield was at the house, but not near where the murder occurred."

[¶6] Officer Alexander also talked to Chief Investigator Richard Cox. Investigator Cox contacted Investigator David Bullock, informed him that there had been a murder, and requested his assistance in the investigation.

[¶7] Investigator Cox spoke with Graham at the jail. Graham said that a blue dog leash was used to strangle Tabitha. Investigator Cox obtained Graham's consent to search her trailer and found two blue nylon dog leashes hanging in the laundry room.

[¶8] Investigator Bullock was advised that Dixon was also a suspect in the murder investigation. After Dixon was arrested, Investigator Bullock obtained a statement from him, and he recounted the events of the murder. Dixon stated that he had strangled Tabitha with a dog leash, given to him by Graham. Dixon also stated that Ronald never knew that Tabitha had been strangled and buried.

[¶9] Investigator Bullock interviewed Hartfield on June 2, 2008. Hartfield stated that he was present at the house on the night of May 24, 2008. Hartfield told Investigator Bullock that he and Tabitha had gotten into a fight, so Tabitha tried to drive off in their car; but she wrecked the car. Hartfield checked the car and realized it was stuck, so he went inside and went to sleep. Hartfield denied any involvement in the murder and stated that he first learned of the murder on May 31, 2008.

[¶10] There is no dispute that, at some point in the night on May 24, 2008, Tabitha, Hartfield, Graham, and Dixon were at Graham's residence. Tabitha and Hartfield

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got into a fight, so Tabitha tried to leave in Hartfield's car. She drove the car into a pond dam, and the car became stuck. Tabitha got out of the car and walked off. Hartfield and Dixon tried to get the car out of the pond dam but could not.

[¶11] The facts are, however, disputed about how Tabitha was murdered. Dixon testified that Graham crushed up some pills, mixed them in a glass of water, and brought the glass to Tabitha. Dixon further testified that he and Hartfield tried to get the car out of the dam but could not. Dixon stated that Hartfield went to where Tabitha was lying in the driveway and strangled her with a dog leash. While Hartfield was strangling Tabitha, a car pulled into the driveway. It was later determined that Jeremy Gibson was the driver of the car. After the car left, Hartfield went back out to Tabitha and strangled her a second time with the dog leash. Later, Graham cut Tabitha's wrists with a kitchen knife. Her body was wrapped in a blanket and placed in a utility trailer. After Hartfield left the next morning, Dixon and Graham buried Tabitha's body deep in the woods behind Graham's trailer.

[¶12] Gibson testified that as he pulled near the driveway, he saw Tabitha lying in the road. Gibson honked and yelled at her to move, and she sat up and looked at him before lying back down. Gibson and Hartfield did not get along. Gibson knew that if Tabitha was present at that address, Hartfield would be there also. So, he left. Gibson changed his mind and drove back to the trailer. When he pulled up, he saw Tabitha still lying in the road. This time she did not move. Gibson also testified that he saw Hartfield through the window sitting at the kitchen table. Graham walked outside to ask Gibson what he wanted, and he told her he wanted pills. Additionally, Gibson testified that he saw Dixon pop his head out of the door. When Gibson left, Tabitha was still lying in the road.

[¶13] Drew Hartfield (" Drew" ), Hartfield and Tabitha's son, testified that when he was seven years old, Hartfield admitted to him that he had killed Tabitha and would explain why when Drew turned nine or ten years old. Shae'terrica Barnes, Drew's counselor, testified that Drew heard of how Tabitha died while at school when a student told him that she was choked.

[¶14] Graham was called to testify. However, because of her prior conviction and her pending appeal, Graham invoked her right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. She did not testify as to the events surrounding the murder.

[¶15] At the conclusion of the trial, the jury acquitted Hartfield of Tabitha's murder and convicted him of conspiracy to commit murder. Hartfield was then sentenced to serve twenty years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. It is from this judgment that Hartfield now appeals.

ANALYSIS

I. Whether the trial court erred in excluding Graham's letters.

[¶16] Hartfield's first issue claims the trial court erred in excluding evidence. Hartfield sought to introduce several letters that Graham wrote to her mother, Diane Breakfield, her boyfriend, James Decker, and Hartfield. Hartfield contends that each letter exculpated Hartfield and inculpated Graham and Dixon in Tabitha's death. Each letter was authenticated. Hartfield contends that the exclusion of these letters constitutes reversible error. We agree.

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[¶17] The standard of review for the exclusion of evidence is well settled. The " [a]dmission or suppression of evidence is within the discretion of the trial judge and will not be reversed absent an abuse of that discretion." Haggerty v. Foster, 838 So.2d 948, 958 (¶ 25) (Miss. 2002). Further, " where error involves the admission or exclusion of evidence, this Court will not reverse unless the error adversely affects a substantial right of a party." Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

[¶18] When Hartfield offered the letters into evidence, the prosecution objected on the ground of hearsay. Hartfield's counsel argued that Mississippi Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3) provided an exception to the hearsay rule that allowed each of the letters to be admitted. Nevertheless, the trial court sustained the objection and excluded the letters.

[¶19] Mississippi Rule of Evidence 801(c) defines " hearsay" as " a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted." Rule 802 provides that " [h]earsay is not admissible except as provided by law." Rule 804(b)(3) provides:

The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule if the declarant is unavailable as a witness: . . .
(3) Statement Against Interest. A statement which was at the time of its making so far contrary to the declarant's pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far tended to subject him to . . . criminal liability . . . that a reasonable man in his position would not have made the statement unless he believed it to be true. A statement tending to expose the declarant to criminal liability and offered to exculpate the accused is not admissible unless corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement.

[¶20] Hartfield asserts that Graham was unavailable and that each letter qualified as a statement against interest under Rule 804(b)(3). Therefore, Hartfield argues that the trial court abused its discretion in the exclusion ...


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