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Hartfield v. State

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

March 5, 2015


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¶1. A jury convicted Ronald Hartfield of conspiracy to murder his wife but acquitted him of her murder. The Circuit Court of Lamar County sentenced Hartfield to twenty years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Hartfield appealed, and this Court assigned the case to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial based on the trial court's exclusion of a coconspirator's letters offered as statements against her penal interest under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3). This Court granted the State's petition for certiorari to address that issue.

¶2. We find that the letters were not against the coconspirator's penal interest and that they were properly excluded by the trial court. Because the Court of Appeals did not address Hartfield's arguments on the weight and sufficiency of the evidence and the trial court's denial of one of Hartfield's peremptory challenges, we rule on those issues. We find that the trial court's denial of the peremptory challenge was not clearly erroneous. We further find that the evidence was sufficient to support Hartfield's guilt of conspiracy, and that the verdict of guilt was not against the overwhelming weight of the evidence. Therefore, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate and affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court of Lamar County.


¶3. Tabitha Hartfield was murdered on the night of May 24, 2008. That night,

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Hartfield, Tabitha, Tabitha's cousin Natasha Graham, and Cody Dixon were at Graham's residence, a trailer located in rural Lamar County. After an argument with Hartfield, Tabitha tried to leave in Hartfield's car, but she wrecked the car in a pond dam on the property. Tabitha got out of the car and wandered down the driveway while Hartfield and Dixon tried, unsuccessfully, to dislodge the car from the pond dam. Hartfield, Graham, and Dixon each gave conflicting stories as to what happened next. Hartfield said that when he realized the car was stuck, he went inside and fell asleep. He denied any involvement in the murder and stated that he first learned Tabitha was dead after Graham reported the murder to police on May 31, 2008. But Hartfield's cellmate, Joseph Bryant, testified that Hartfield told him that Hartfield and his girlfriend had discussed killing his wife, and then they strangled her with a dog leash and buried her in the woods.

¶4. Dixon testified that Graham and Tabitha had fought earlier that evening due to Tabitha's suspicion that Graham was having an affair with Hartfield. He testified that, after Tabitha wrecked the car, Graham crushed some pills, mixed them in a glass of water, and brought the glass to Tabitha, who drank the mixture. Then, he and Hartfield walked over to Tabitha, and Hartfield strangled her with a dog leash. Dixon testified that Tabitha was too intoxicated to resist. Dixon testified that, while Hartfield was strangling Tabitha, a vehicle approached, and he and Hartfield hid and left Tabitha lying in the driveway. Jeremy Gibson was driving the vehicle. Dixon said that, when Gibson saw Tabitha, he honked and then turned around and left, but quickly returned and drove to the trailer, where he spoke briefly with Graham before departing. After a few minutes, Dixon and Hartfield returned to Tabitha, and Hartfield strangled Tabitha to death with the leash. Dixon testified that Graham came out, cut Tabitha's wrists with a kitchen knife, and helped wrap her body in a blanket. The three put Tabitha's body on a trailer attached to a lawn mower and, the next morning, Dixon and Graham drove the lawn mower into the woods and buried the body in a shallow grave. Dixon testified that Hartfield instructed him to " take the blame" if the police got involved.

¶5. Gibson testified that, as he drove down the driveway, he observed Tabitha lying in the road, honked, and yelled at her to move. Tabitha sat up and looked at him, then lay back down. Gibson testified that, initially, he drove away after seeing Tabitha because he did not get along with her husband, Hartfield, but then he changed his mind and drove back to the trailer. This time, Tabitha did not move when he honked, and he drove around her. Gibson stated that, through the trailer's window, he saw Hartfield sitting at the kitchen table. Gibson also testified that he saw Dixon pop his head out of a window. Gibson testified that Graham walked outside, and he told her he wanted pills; she replied that it was not a good time. Then, Hartfield came outside, and Gibson left.

¶6. Dixon admitted that his testimony was the result of a favorable plea bargain. He also admitted that his trial testimony differed from his earlier statements to the police. On May 31, 2008, Dixon told the police that he had strangled Tabitha, and that, at the time of the murder, Hartfield had been asleep inside and had no knowledge of Tabitha's murder. After that statement, Dixon wrote several letters to investigators offering to assist with the State's case in exchange for a favorable plea deal. Finally, on June 2, 2011, Dixon told the police that Hartfield had killed Tabitha. But in an August 29, 2011, letter to investigators, Dixon admitted that he

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had falsely implicated Hartfield to save himself. Dixon denied that he had written that letter.

¶7. Graham reported the murder to the authorities on May 31, 2008. She told a 911 operator that she had killed her cousin. Officer Jason Alexander responded to the call, and Graham led him to the gravesite. Alexander arrested Graham and asked Officer Matt Henderson to drive her to the jail. Henderson testified that, during the trip to the jail, Graham stated 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." At the jail, Graham told Chief Investigator Richard Cox that a blue dog leash had been used to strangle Tabitha. Investigator Cox found two blue dog leashes inside Graham's trailer.

¶8. Graham was convicted in a separate trial of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Graham took the stand at Hartfield's trial but invoked her rights under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution due to her prior conviction and pending appeal. This Court subsequently affirmed Graham's conviction. Graham v. State, 120 So.3d 382, 389 (Miss. 2013).

¶9. Hartfield sought to introduce several letters Graham had written while awaiting trial to Hartfield, her boyfriend James Decker, and her mother, Diane Breakfield. In the letters, Graham stated that Dixon, acting on his own, had strangled Tabitha while Hartfield was inside asleep, and that Dixon had forced Graham to assist him with disposing of the body. Hartfield argued that these letters were admissible under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3). Mississippi Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3) contains an exception to the hearsay rule providing that, if the declarant is unavailable as a witness, a statement against the declarant's penal interest that exculpates the defendant is admissible if corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the statement's trustworthiness. M.R.E. 804(b)(3). The trial court agreed that Graham was unavailable and that the letters were against her penal interest but excluded the letters on the ground that they were uncorroborated and lacked indicia of trustworthiness. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial, finding that Graham's statements in the letters were against her penal interest and sufficiently corroborated by the police statements given by Hartfield and Dixon, the autopsy findings, and other evidence. This Court granted the State's petition for certiorari. Because we find that Graham's statements were not against her penal interest, we do not reach the issue of whether corroborating circumstances indicated the statements were trustworthy.



¶10. This Court reviews the trial court's ruling admitting or excluding evidence for abuse of discretion. Whitaker v. State, 146 So.3d 333, 337 (Miss. 2014). Additionally, an evidentiary ruling will not be disturbed unless the error affected a substantial right of a party. M.R.E. 103(a).

¶11. It is undisputed that Graham's letters to Hartfield, Decker, and Breakfield constituted hearsay. Under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 802, " [h]earsay is inadmissible except as provided by law." Rule 804 contains hearsay exceptions applicable when the declarant is unavailable as a witness. Rule 804(b)(3) states:

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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 civil or criminal liability, or to render invalid a claim by him against another, 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.

M.R.E. 804(b)(3). The rule imposes three requirements for the admission of a statement that tends to expose the declarant to criminal liability and is offered to exculpate the accused: (1) that the declarant is unavailable as a witness, (2) that the statement so far tends to subject the declarant to criminal liability that a reasonable person in his position would not have made the statement unless he believed it to be true, and (3) that corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement. Id. Such declarations against penal interest are admissible on the theory that they are reliable, because " [n]o reasonable person would make such a statement and invite possible criminal prosecution if the statement were not true." M.R.E. 804(b)(3) cmt.

¶12. Certainly, the first requirement for admissibility was fulfilled because Graham, having invoked her rights under the Fifth Amendment, was unavailable as a witness. See Lacy v. State, 700 So.2d 602, 603, 608 (Miss. 1997). The dispute at trial and at the Court of Appeals centered on whether the statements were against Graham's penal interest and, if so, whether sufficient corroborating evidence indicated their trustworthiness. The Court of Appeals held that the letters were against Graham's penal interest, stating that the letters were " so contrary to Graham's pecuniary interest and subjected her to criminal liability, such that she would not have made the statement unless she believed it to be true." The State argues that, because in the letters, Graham asserted that she had participated in the crime under duress, the letters were not against her penal interest. To clarify our analysis of whether Graham's statements were against her penal interest, we quote Graham's letters to Decker and Hartfield, italicizing the portions in which she described her involvement in Tabitha's death:

A. Graham's letter to Decker dated July 2008

I'll tell you what happened that nite--everything--but its really hard on me--so there's probably going to be a lot more dry tears on this paper than there already is. Tabitha & her husband Ronald came over that day. (She's my cousin--I loved her--she was a blast!) We were drinking vodka and beer together. She wanted to know if we wanted to ride to Collins with them to go pick up her birthday present. So we did. On the way back to the house she had drank way too much and her and Ronald got into it. She was hitting him and jerking the steering wheel while he was driving and she almost wrecked us a couple of times. I tried to stop her by putting my arms around her from the back seat to pin her down while I was talking to her but she almost bit my thumb into! She turned around and started hitting me & Cody. I dove over the seat at her & crammed her into the floor board. I told her I'd let her up if she promised to behave until they dropped me off. She said ok so I let her up. She did good and when we got to my house she and me talked & hugged. She said she was sorry for showing her ass and all. I told

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her it was okay that I wasn't mad at her. Well, she wanted to go home & her husband didn't so she jumped in their car and started down the driveway without him and she wrecked on the pond dam. She jumped out of the car and ran up the driveway a little ways and sat on the side in the bushes. Ronald & Cody tried to get the car out but couldn't. They went in the house and pulled out a bottle of tequila & started doing shots. By this time b/c of all the drama I was sober. I hadn't drank nothing since the Fite in the car. I went up the road and was trying to talk Tabby into coming in the house. She wouldn't. I told her she could stay in the room with me but she still wouldn't. I tryed talking to her for about 3 hours on and off. I brought her kool-aid and a sandwich thinking if she ate & sobered up some she'd come to her senses and come inside and it didn't work. So finally I told her if she wanted to be stubborn and sleep in the bushes & get ate up by mosquitoes then I'd let her. I told her I was going to bed and I went inside. It was about 1:00 a.m. and Cody & Ronald was still drinking. I told them I was gonna get a shower and go to bed & that Tabby wouldn't come in. Ronald said f [* *]k it let her stay out there. I told him they could sleep on the couch and get the car unstuck in the morning. I went to get a shower. When I got out I got in the bed. Cody came in and said he was gonna try to bring Tabby inside & that Ronald was on the couch asleep. I said ok but he'd probably have to carry her in once she passed out cuz she refuses to come in. Well he went outside and I layed down and drifted off. About 30 mins. or a hour later Cody came back in the bedroom & woke me up. He was all excited and crazy looking Bouncing around the room. I was like " whats going on? Whats up w/ you?" Ya know. He started saying " I did it! I did it! I killed her! " I ran outside and saw Tabby laying face down in the driveway. I ran up to her and couldn't get her to wake up. I put my head on her back and there wasn't a heartbeat. I started freaking out! Cody was standing beside me with a kitchen knife in his hand. I was on my knees beside Tabby and I looked up at him and started crying and screaming " What did you do Cody? Why? Why did you do this?" He was smiling--his eyes almost glowing out of his head & was telling me how it excited him, it gave him a rush, it turned him on. My dog leash was laying beside her head. I went to get up on my feet and run and he dropped the knife in the dirt and grabbed the leash and caught me around the neck & by my hair. He brought me face to face and looked me in my eyes and told me I wasn't gonna to tell anybody and he was making sure of it. He said if I didn't do what he told me to he'd kill me and like it--the same way he did her . . . I was so scared Jamie. I've never been so scared in my life. I told him I'd do whatever he wanted just don't hurt my babies. Just don't take me from my kids and I'll do anything he said. He took the leash off my neck and I fell down beside Tabby crying so hard I was gagging. I threw up twice in the bushes. He was laughing at me. He told me to help him turn her over so I did. He had a sheet from in the house and we put her on it. He told me to take the knife and cut her wrists so if somebody found her they would think she did it so I did. I helped him wrapp her in the sheet and put her in the wagon behind my lawn mower. He grabbed me and took me inside to the bedroom & told me to get in bed. So I did. I layed there crying with him sitting on the side of the bed

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wrapping & unwrapping the leash around his hand untill I cryed myself to sleep. About 6:30 he woke me up and told me to come with him. I went outside and me & him got on the lawn mower. He said I had to go with him cuz he wasn't leaving me alone & we went into the woods. About a mile & 1/2 back he stopped. He got off the mower and got the shovel. He made me help him get her body out of the wagon and drag her into the woods and lay her down. I sat behind her and cryed & cryed while he dug a hole. He wanted me to help him put her in it & cover it up but I couldn't. So he did it by his self. Then we went home. Ronald woke up and left. He used my phone to get somebody to come get him. I called a friend to come get the boys for the week cuz I was scared what would happen. I tryed to do my everyday stuff but I couldn't and when I went to work at mom's or in the garden Cody stayed right under me. I couldn't even talk to mom and she kept asking what was wrong but I couldn't say nothing cuz Cody was there. I didn't sleep & when I did I had horrible nightmares. Cody kept the leash in the drawer beside the bed & kept threatening me--cornering me in the house & saying I need to toughen up cuz if anybody found out I'd be beside her in the woods. Finally after about 3 days my other friend Big Cody came over. I asked him would he stay a few days. He knew something was wrong too & kept asking me. Well Cody D. (my Cody--the one that did the sh[*]t) called me in the kitchen and grabbed me & was choking me & Big Cody caught him and got him off of me. Big Cody asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I was scared of Cody D and I wanted him to leave. Big Cody made him get in the car and me and Big Cody dropped him off at his momma's. That night I told Big Cody what happened. He stayed with me to make sure Cody D didn't come back and hurt me. My check came in that Friday (it was 5 days after the murder). Me & Big Cody went and paid my bills. I told him I was going to call the law and turn Cody D in. He took me out to dinner & tryed to talk me out of it but it didn't work. When we got to my house I went for a walk and called 911. I told them I was reporting a murder. When the cops got there I took them in the woods & showed them where he buried her. They arrested my & charged me with murder. It took 2 days (I think) to get Cody D. When they arrested him he wrote a statement saying he did it & that I didn't . . . .

(Emphasis added.)

B. Graham's letter to Hartfield dated ...

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