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McKnight v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

May 19, 2015

JAMES DOUGLAS MCKNIGHT A/K/A JAMES MCKNIGHT A/K/A JAMES D. MCKNIGHT, APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI, APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/21/2013.

          COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: PIKE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. DAVID H. STRONG JR. TRIAL COURT DISPOSITION: CONVICTED OF COUNT ONE, MURDER, AND COUNT TWO, POSSESSION OF A FIREARM BY A CONVICTED FELON, AND SENTENCED AS A HABITUAL OFFENDER ON BOTH COUNTS TO LIFE IN THE CUSTODY OF THE MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS WITHOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF PROBATION, PAROLE, OR EARLY RELEASE, WITH THE SENTENCES TO RUN CONSECUTIVELY, AND TO PAY FINES IN THE AMOUNT OF $10,000 ON COUNT ONE, AND $1,000 ON COUNT TWO, AND $6,000 IN RESTITUTION.

         FOR APPELLANT: CHARLES E. MILLER.

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

         BEFORE LEE, C.J., BARNES AND MAXWELL, JJ.

          OPINION

         BARNES, J.

         [¶1] James McKnight was convicted of murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and was sentenced to life in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) on both counts, as a habitual offender without possibility for probation, parole, or early release, with the sentences to run consecutively.

         [¶2] On appeal, McKnight argues that numerous errors warrant a new trial. Finding no reversible error, we affirm McKnight's convictions and resulting sentences.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         [¶3] On August 30, 2011, James McKnight contacted Mary Marsalis, asking if she had seen a mutual acquaintance, Derrick Witherspoon, also known as " Twin." Mary stated she had not seen Twin, and McKnight asked her to let Twin know McKnight was looking for him. A few minutes later, Twin arrived at Mary's house, and Mary related McKnight's desire to talk to him. Mary then called McKnight on the telephone, and Twin spoke with him. When Twin hung up the phone, he told Mary that McKnight was on his way to her house.

         [¶4] Shortly thereafter, McKnight, his wife, Barbara, and Alreco Hill, a friend of the McKnights, pulled up in McKnight's SUV. McKnight was upset because he had not heard from his adult son, James " J.J." McKnight Jr., in several days, and he suspected that Twin was involved with J.J.'s disappearance. Twin claimed he did not know where J.J. was, but McKnight did not believe him and continued to question him. McKnight asked Twin to get into the SUV several times, and Twin finally complied.

         [¶5] The four drove off and proceeded through the town of McComb, Mississippi, with McKnight continuing to question Twin regarding J.J.'s whereabouts. When the SUV stopped at a traffic light, Twin tried to jump out of the vehicle. McKnight pulled out a .380 caliber gun and warned Twin that if he tried to run away again, McKnight would shoot him. Twin sat back in his seat and closed the door. The SUV later stopped at the intersection of Avenue E and Locust Street, and Twin jumped out of the vehicle and ran away. According to Hill, McKnight fired two shots and pursued Twin. Hill also got out of the SUV, following McKnight. McKnight fired more shots at Twin, and then McKnight and Hill returned to the SUV. McKnight told Hill, " What just happened stays in the truck."

         [¶6] While these events were occurring, David Wells and Terry Williams, McKnight's uncle, were helping a neighbor move into a nearby home on Locust Street. Wells was sitting outside the home, and heard the gunfire. He saw the doors to the SUV open and three people run from the vehicle. Williams, who was in the garage, also heard the shots and ran outside. He observed two men running from the SUV, which he recognized as belonging to his nephew, McKnight. Williams heard more gunfire as he began walking toward the SUV. As Williams attempted to question Barbara about the situation, he encountered McKnight and Hill returning to the SUV. McKnight was holding a gun. The two men got into the SUV with Barbara, and the three drove away. Williams returned to his friend's home and told Wells that " his nephew done got himself in some trouble." Wells called 911 and reported the incident.

         [¶7] Barbara dropped McKnight off at his father's home, and then drove back to Mary's house to instruct her to say that Mary had not seen Twin that day. Hill and Barbara then went to the McKnights' house to pick up clothes and the McKnights' two younger sons, picked up McKnight at his father's house, and drove to Jackson, Mississippi. Soon thereafter, J.J., who was in Oklahoma and avoiding his father because of an argument, called Hill's phone and talked to McKnight. Since Hill's mother lived in Jackson, McKnight dropped him off there, telling Hill that " it [was]n't really supposed to happen that way" and instructing him to keep quiet.

         [¶8] Police officers recovered Twin's deceased body, along with shell casings from a .380 caliber gun and a partial projectile, in a cane patch near the intersection of Avenue E and Locust Street. An autopsy revealed that Twin died of multiple gunshot wounds, and the manner of death was ruled a homicide. The projectiles removed from the body were determined to be .380 caliber, and they were fired from the same gun. McKnight's SUV was later found stripped and abandoned in Jackson. After a search warrant was issued, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations processed the vehicle and found a .380 shell casing in the rear cargo area.

         [¶9] McKnight was arrested and charged with murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Barbara and Hill were both charged with accessory after the fact.[1] After a jury trial in Pike County Circuit Court, McKnight was convicted on June 13, 2013, on both counts, and sentenced as a habitual offender pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 99-19-83 ( Rev. 2007) to life in the custody of the MDOC for each count, with the sentences to run consecutively.[2] He was also fined $10,000 for the murder count, and $1,000 for the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon count.

         [¶10] Prior to sentencing, McKnight was granted a substitution of counsel; his new attorney filed several post-trial motions, including a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), or alternatively, a motion for a new trial.[3] After a hearing, the circuit court denied all motions. McKnight now appeals, alleging several errors. Upon review, we find no reversible error and affirm the circuit court's judgment.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain the verdict.

         [¶11] In his motion for a JNOV, McKnight argued that the State's case relied entirely on circumstantial evidence; thus, the evidence was not sufficient to sustain the verdict. The circuit court denied his motion. On appeal, he reasserts this argument, claiming that the witnesses' testimonies were unreliable.

         [¶12] " A motion for JNOV challenges the legal sufficiency of the evidence." Abeyta v. State, 137 So.3d 305, 311 (¶ 14) (Miss. 2014) (quoting Taylor v. State, 110 So.3d 776, 782 (¶ 19) (Miss. 2013)). In its determination of whether to grant or deny the motion, the circuit court " considers the credible evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict." Id.

If after viewing all credible evidence in the light " most favorable to the State, the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the act charged, and that he did so under such circumstances that every element of the offense existed," then the evidence will be deemed legally sufficient and the verdict will be upheld.

Riley v. State, 126 So.3d 1007, 1010 (¶ 12) (Miss. Ct.App. 2013) (quoting Melton v. State, 118 So.3d 605, 610 (¶ 20) (Miss. Ct.App. 2012)).

         [¶13] McKnight was convicted of murder under Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-19(1)(a) (Rev. 2006), which defines murder as " [t]he killing of a human being without the authority of law by any means or in any manner . . . .[w]hen done with deliberate design to effect the death of the person killed, or of any human being[.]" He was also convicted of possession of a weapon by a convicted felon pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-37-5(1) (Supp. 2012), which states that " [i]t shall be unlawful for any person who has been convicted of a felony under the laws of this state, any other state, or of the United States to possess any firearm[.]" We find the evidence sufficient to support McKnight's convictions on both counts.

         [¶14] Marsalis saw Twin get into the SUV with McKnight and the others shortly before his death. Hill testified that McKnight threatened Twin with a gun and then fired the gun at Twin multiple times when he ran from the SUV. The evidence revealed that Twin died as a result of gunshot wounds, and the projectiles retrieved from Twin's body match the caliber of the gun that McKnight was believed to have possessed. McKnight's uncle, Terry Williams, stated that he saw a gun in McKnight's hand after he heard the gunshots fired. McKnight's other uncle, Bruce Williams, testified that he saw McKnight the morning of Twin's murder and that McKnight was upset over his son's disappearance. He further stated he saw a .380 caliber gun in McKnight's vehicle approximately a week prior to the shooting. The shell casings confiscated from McKnight's SUV and the crime scene were .380 caliber.

         [¶15] Viewing the evidence and testimony in the light most favorable to the verdict, this Court finds there is sufficient evidence to support McKnight's convictions.

         II. Whether the verdict was against the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

         [¶16] McKnight also argues that a new trial is warranted, as the verdict was against the overwhelming weight of the evidence. " [A] motion for a new trial challenges the weight of the evidence." Riley, 126 So.3d at 1010 (¶ 12) (quoting Melton, 118 So.3d at 609 (¶ 17)). Unless the jury's verdict " is so contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence that to allow it to stand would sanction an unconscionable injustice," we will not disturb it on appeal. Id. (quoting Melton, 118 So.3d at 610 (¶ 17)).

         [¶17] McKnight argues that he is entitled to a new trial because Hill's testimony was " unreliable" and " self-serving," as he was a co-defendant. He cites Flanagan v. State, 605 So.2d 753 (Miss. 1992), a case in which the defendant was convicted solely on testimony by an alleged co-conspirator. The Mississippi Supreme Court concluded in Flanagan that the uncorroborated testimony of alleged accomplice, which was contradictory and substantially impeached, would not support a conviction for conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. Id. at 758.

         [¶18] The State argues that Hill was not an accomplice; he was charged as an accessory after the fact for assisting McKnight after Twin's murder. We agree.

Our supreme court has described an accomplice as " a person who is implicated in the commission of the crime." Slaughter v. State, 815 So.2d 1122, 1134 (¶ 66) (Miss. 2002). In other words, if the evidence gives a reasonable inference that the person may have been a co-perpetrator or the sole perpetrator, then the person is an accomplice. Id. (quoting Williams v. State, 729 So.2d 1181, 1188 (¶ 31) (Miss. 1998)). On the other hand, an accessory-after-the-fact has been defined as " a person assisting one who has completed the commission of a felony to avoid being apprehended, arrested, convicted, etc." Chase v. State, 645 So.2d 829, 851 (Miss. 1994).

Bailey v. State, 960 So.2d 583, 590 (¶ 30) (Miss. Ct.App. 2007). In Bailey, we found " [n]o evidence . . . that Tharpe agreed with Bailey to murder Kirtland, that she planned the murder, that she helped Bailey stab Kirtland or that she encouraged Bailey at any time during the murder." Id. at (¶ 31). Rather, the evidence demonstrated that Tharpe helped Bailey clean up after the murder and failed to notify authorities of the murder until confronted with evidence more than a year later. Id. Because " Tharpe's actions assisted Bailey after the murder[,] and . . . her silence allowed Bailey to avoid being apprehended and punished[, her] actions are considered those of an accessory-after-the-fact, the charge to which she pled guilty." Id.

         [¶19] Similarly, in this case, there was no evidence presented that Hill helped plan or facilitate Twin's murder. While Hill did leave the SUV with McKnight, there is no evidence that he assisted McKnight in shooting Twin or had planned to do so. The only other evidence of his participation was going to Mary's house to instruct her to keep silent and assisting McKnight and his wife in going to Jackson to avoid arrest. He also waited a few days before notifying authorities of his involvement.

         [¶20] Moreover, the alleged accomplice's testimony in Flanagan was refuted by other testimony and entirely uncorroborated. Here, although Hill was the only person who testified that McKnight shot Twin, several witnesses corroborated Hill's version of the events surrounding Twin's murder. Marsalis saw Twin get into the vehicle with McKnight and Hill. Terry Williams saw McKnight with a gun in his hand after he heard the shots and saw the men running. Thus, Hill's testimony was not substantially impeached. As to the reliability and weight of Hill's testimony, the supreme court has held that " the jury will be the sole judge of the credibility of witnesses and the weight and worth of their testimony." Gathright v. State, 380 So.2d 1276, 1278 (Miss. 1980). The jury listened to Hill's testimony, including his admission that he had initially lied to police and evidently believed his testimony that McKnight shot at Twin multiple times.

         [¶21] When viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, we find the weight of the evidence does not preponderate so heavily against the verdict that to allow it to stand would sanction an unconscionable injustice. Accordingly, we hold that the circuit court correctly denied McKnight's motion for a new trial.

         III. Whether probable cause existed to arrest McKnight.

         [¶22] After an arrest warrant was issued for McKnight, he surrendered to authorities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and waived his right to extradition. McKnight did not address this issue prior to trial. Rather, in his motion for a JNOV, McKnight claimed for the first time that he was subject to an illegal arrest. He claims on appeal that his arrest was illegal and not based on probable cause because of the " lack of corroborative evidence and the unreliability of [S]tate witnesses."

         [¶23] We find no basis for McKnight's argument on appeal. " Arrest warrants or search warrants shall be issued only by the judge after a judicial determination that probable cause exists based upon the affidavit or other evidence before the court." State v. Woods, 866 So.2d 422, 425 (¶ 10) (Miss. 2003). Based on the investigation by law enforcement and the conclusions of the medical examiner, there was cause to believe a homicide had been committed. Marsalis told police that Twin had gotten into the SUV with McKnight shortly before his murder. Furthermore, Hill gave a statement to police, claiming that McKnight was responsible for the shooting. Consequently, we find probable cause existed to arrest McKnight for Twin's murder.

         IV. Whether the circuit court erred in denying McKnight's motion to suppress evidence obtained as ...


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