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Amos v. State

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

November 30, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 08/08/2016






         ¶1. A Neshoba County jury convicted Samuel Amos of murder following the shooting death of Marquai Kirkland. Amos was sentenced by the Circuit Court of Neshoba County, as a habitual offender, to life without the possibility of parole. On appeal, Amos raises two issues. First, he argues that the trial court erred by refusing his proposed accomplice jury instruction. Second, he maintains that the trial court erred by denying his motion for a mistrial when the prosecutor referenced a polygraph test. Finding no error, we affirm.


         ¶2. Kirkland lived with his brother James Carter in Philadelphia, Mississippi. On the afternoon of May 20, 2014, according to Carter, Kirkland talked on the telephone with Landon Dupree. Carter testified that Kirkland told Dupree that someone owed him money and that he had to go pick it up. Less than twenty minutes later, between 2:20 and 3:00 p.m., a green Ford Explorer (the "Explorer") drove up in front of the house where Carter and Kirkland were standing outside. Carter maintained that the only identifying feature of the green Explorer was that some molding was missing from the vehicle.

         ¶3. Carter further testified that he had believed at the time that the driver of the Explorer was a person named Santo because the driver had been to the house once before to cut Kirkland's hair. Carter, though, had not seen the Explorer before that day. Also, Carter testified that there was no question in his mind that Amos drove the Explorer that day. At trial, Carter explained that he initially had referred to the man as Santo because "[t]hat's just what I thought [his name] was, " and it "probably was a street name."

         ¶4. After Amos arrived at the house alone in the Explorer, Kirkland asked him for a ride. Kirkland got into the Explorer through the front passenger-side door, but "jumped out" because he had forgotten something in the house. Carter testified that Kirkland went into the house for about thirty seconds to get a gun. Carter, however, did not see a gun when Kirkland returned from inside. Kirkland returned to the Explorer, and Amos drove away. Carter never saw Kirkland alive again.

         ¶5. At trial, Terrance Hunter, Kirkland's relative, testified that Dupree had telephoned Amos to have Amos pick up Hunter because "[t]hey wanted to hit a lick for $600.00." Hunter testified that Dupree had telephoned him also because he "wanted me to ride with them to make sure the lick went straight." Hunter testified that by "lick" he was referring to a drug deal between Kirkland "and a guy from Noxapater" and that the "dude was going to pay [Kirkland] for . . . was going to buy some sort of controlled substance . . . ."

         ¶6. Hunter testified that Amos and Kirkland picked him up at about 3:00 p.m., "about 30 to 45 minutes" after Hunter had talked to Dupree. Hunter got in the back seat on the driver's side. At the time, Amos was driving and Kirkland was in the front passenger seat. After Amos stopped at a store to get some cigarettes, he instructed Hunter to drive. According to Hunter, Amos got in the back seat on the passenger side of the Explorer. Amos directed Hunter to the location where the drug deal was to take place and told him to slow down. Before he could slow down, Hunter heard a "boom"-a gunshot from the back of the Explorer-and saw that Kirkland had been struck. Once Hunter stopped the Explorer, Amos pulled Kirkland from the passenger seat and dragged him "to the end of the woods." Amos then returned to the front passenger seat and told Hunter "to drive off." Hunter complied.

         ¶7. Later that evening, Marsha Bavetta, a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department, was alerted that a body had been found. Detective Bavetta responded to the scene of the crime and processed evidence until other law-enforcement personnel arrived.

         ¶8. Throughout the course of the investigation, law-enforcement officers found the Explorer with a missing window on the front passenger-side of the vehicle. Law-enforcement officers discovered the Explorer at the home of April Brown, who was in a relationship with Amos.

         ¶9. Multiple DNA samples, collected in the investigation, matched Kirkland's DNA. Investigators submitted a carpet cutting from the front passenger side floorboard of the Explorer to the Mississippi Crime Laboratory for DNA analysis, as the floorboard contained a "large amount" of suspected pooled blood. A swab also was analyzed from a suspected blood stain which was found twenty-four or twenty-five feet from Kirkland's body. At trial, Leslia Davis, a forensic serology and DNA analysis specialist at the Mississippi Forensics Laboratory, testified, without objection, as an expert in DNA examination and evaluation. She testified to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that it was not possible that the samples submitted contained "blood from somebody other than . . . Marquai Kirkland."

         ¶10. Glass fragments taken from the scene of the crime also were submitted to the Mississippi Crime Laboratory to be compared to glass fragments found in the Explorer. Without objection, Jason Burchfield, a Mississippi Crime Lab employee, was tendered and accepted as an expert in the field of trace evidence and glass analysis. Burchfield opined that the glass fragments were "consistent with one another" and that it was "very possible" that the fragments came "from the same batch."

         ¶11. Law-enforcement officers also processed the exterior of the Explorer for fingerprints. Jamie Bush of the Mississippi Forensics Laboratory System was tendered and accepted, without objection, as an expert in the field of latent print examination and comparison. According to Bush, two latent prints matched "a set of known finger prints, rolled finger prints and palm prints of an individual by the name of Samuel Amos, II."

         ¶12. Based on information that Hunter had admitted to killing someone, Hunter was brought to the Neshoba County Jail from Texas and was questioned. In an initial statement, Hunter denied having any knowledge about Kirkland's murder. According to Detective Bavetta, Hunter asked to talk, but "would not reveal to me what he wanted to tell me because he said he was afraid that he would get framed for everything . . . ." Bavetta left the Philadelphia Police Department in June 2015, prior to Hunter's giving another statement on June 11, 2015 (the "2015 statement").

         ¶13. Hunter read the 2015 statement in open court:

I was on Martin Luther King, Jr. when Landon Dupree pulled over and offered me three grams of meth to ride with Samuel [Amos] to do something to [Kirkland]. . . . At first, I said no, then he pulled off and an hour later he called me and he was like . . . I need you to do it. Just drive, that's it. I don't want you to do nothing else. Red's[1] going to . . . handle the rest. Okay. . . . Landon called me and told me Red was looking for me to handle that business. [Amos] came and picked me up. [Kirkland] was already in the truck with him so we went to Spaceway. I got out then [Amos] got out and went in the store. When we came back out, I got in the driver's seat and [Amos] got in the back seat behind [Kirkland]. So we went on and [Amos] was like, pull down this side road. The lick down there waiting. Lick for $600 so when we got on the road, Red as Samuel Amos pulled the trigger and he was like bro, if you say anything, you're going to be the same way. So [Amos] got out of the truck and drug [Kirkland] to the woods and got back in and we got up the road. [Amos] jumped back in the driver's seat and that's when he asked me where I'm going. I told him on Martin Luther King. He dropped me off and that was the last time I saw Samuel [Amos] . . . .

         Hunter explained that he initially had claimed that he did not know about the murder because he was scared of retaliation: "I was in fear of my life, sir." Hunter stated that he was unaware that Amos was going to kill Kirkland.

         ¶14. After the investigation and Hunter's 2015 statement, Amos was indicted for the murder of Kirkland as a habitual offender pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 99-19-83. He was tried in the Circuit Court of Neshoba County on July12 and 13, 2016. The jury found Amos guilty and the circuit court sentenced him, as a habitual offender, to life without the possibility of parole. On appeal, Amos raises two issues. He first argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied Amos's tendered accomplice jury instruction. Second, he argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied Amos's motion for a mistrial after the prosecutor asked Hunter whether he had taken a polygraph test. Finding no reversible error, we affirm Amos's conviction and sentence.


         I. Accomplice Jury Instruction

         ¶15. After he rested at trial, Amos proposed the following jury instruction:

The Court instructs the Jury that the law looks with suspicion and distrust on the testimony of an alleged accomplice[]. The Jury should weigh the testimony from alleged accomplices with great care and caution, and look upon it with distrust and suspicion. You, the jury, should determine what weight, if any, you should give that testimony.

         In response, the State argued that there was no evidence that Hunter had been an accomplice to the murder. Among other arguments, defense counsel responded that Hunter was "an accomplice before the fact" as he had "talked about getting a phone call from this drug king pin about hitting-putting out a hit on-on the victim." Defense counsel also argued that "it looks like he gave the statement as his plea bargain, basically, to not get indicted." The trial court refused the instruction, stating that "it would be confusing, " but allowed defense counsel a "full-bore right to argue that and the jurors can give whatever weight and whatever inference they wish."

         ¶16. The grant of a cautionary instruction regarding the testimony of an accomplice witness is discretionary with the trial court. Brown v. State, 890 So.2d 901, 910 (Miss. 2004) (citing Burke v. State, 576 So.2d 1239, 1242 (Miss. 1991)). In order to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion, we consider a two-part test. Id. "First, it must be determined if the witness was in fact an accomplice. If that prong is met, we determine secondly if the testimony was without corroboration." Id. (citations omitted); see also Williams v. State, 32 So.3d 486, 490 (Miss. 2010). We will take each of these questions in turn.

         Accomplice Liability

         ¶17. Our prior caselaw-within the context of accomplice instructions-has addressed whether a witness was an accomplice to the crime. We have held that "'[a]n accomplice . . . is a person who is implicated in the commission of the crime, ' and will be considered as such 'if the evidence admits a reasonable inference that the witness may have been a ...

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