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Knight v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

February 12, 2019


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/28/2015





         EN BANC

          WESTBROOKS, J.

         ¶1. A jury sitting before the Lowndes County Circuit Court found John Knight guilty of sexual battery of a minor. After finding that Knight qualified for enhanced sentencing as a violent habitual offender, the circuit court sentenced him to life in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections without eligibility for parole. Knight appeals. His appointed appellate attorney claims that although Knight chose to represent himself during the majority of his trial, he performed so poorly that the circuit court should have sua sponte declared a mistrial or forced Knight to step aside so his appointed trial counsel could take over. Knight's attorney also claims that the jury's verdict is contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence, and the circuit court should not have allowed the prosecution to introduce pictures that a nurse took while examining the victim. Finding no error, we affirm.


         ¶2. Knight's conviction stems from his inappropriate sexual contact with his twelve-year- old stepdaughter, Jane Smith.[1] In February 2007, Knight married Jane's mother, Rebecca. On April 18, 2007, Jane's aunt, Teresa Smith, took Jane to the emergency room at the Oktibbeha County Hospital. Teresa had reason to believe that Knight had been sexually abusing Jane. Based on Teresa's concerns, the hospital contacted the local Department of Human Services. Alexis Shumaker, a family protection worker, went to the hospital. She stayed there until Jane left the hospital. Thus, Shumaker was present while Jane was examined by Michelle Johnson, a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. Johnson's examination revealed that Jane had recent injuries consistent with sexual assault.

         ¶3. While Jane was still in the emergency room, she was visited by Detective David Criddle of the Columbus Police Department. Jane did not want to talk to him at that time. By the next morning, she had changed her mind. She told Detective Criddle that beginning in February 2007, Knight had been touching her inappropriately and having intercourse with her. She also said that Knight ran off with her on April 17, 2007, and he refused to return her until the following day. Jane told Detective Criddle that she and Knight had intercourse at the Budget Inn in Columbus after they checked in around 1 a.m. on April 18, 2007.

         ¶4. Knight was subsequently indicted for sexual battery of a minor. A lengthy pretrial history followed. It took more than a year to apprehend Knight and extradite him from Louisiana. After pleading not guilty and being released on bond, Knight retained attorney Casey Lott. Lott filed a number of pretrial motions for Knight. He successfully asked the circuit court to subpoena Jane's records from the Columbus Police Department, the Starkville Police Department, the Oktibbeha County Hospital, and the Oktibbeha County Department of Human Services. The circuit court received those documents under seal but later allowed Lott to review them.

         ¶5. Through one of several motions in limine, Lott wanted to explore a theory that Jane's vaginal injuries were caused by one of her cousins. According to Lott's motion, during a January 2007 appointment, Jane revealed "that she had been sexually abused by her cousin," but Rebecca did not press charges. The motion further said that Knight ran off with Jane on April 17, 2007, because he wanted authorities to prosecute her cousin.

         ¶6. On April 7, 2011, the circuit court conducted a hearing on Lott's pending motions. Noting that Johnson's report suggested that Jane had an April 16, 2007 doctor's appointment, [2] Lott wanted to explore whether Jane had vaginal injuries before Knight ran off with her. If she did, Lott also wanted to determine whether Jane had attributed those injuries to abuse by her cousin.

         ¶7. Jane explained that her cousin had molested her, but it was three or four years before Knight abused her. She said that in December 2006, she had seen a doctor for abdominal pain that was caused by inflammation of her mesenteric lymph nodes. She added that her abdominal pain was completely different than the vaginal pain that Knight's abuse caused. Jane also said that she had no memory of an April 16, 2007 doctor's appointment. The circuit judge ultimately held that Knight would not be allowed to present irrelevant evidence that Jane's cousin had molested her years before she met Knight.

         ¶8. After the April 2011 hearing, Lott's relationship with Knight began to deteriorate. About a month later, Lott moved to withdraw as counsel for Knight. Lott said that Knight insisted on pursuing imprudent objectives, he wanted Lott to "convey threatening messages to various law enforcement entities," and he wanted Lott to call the Lowndes County District Attorney as a witness "despite the fact that [he] was not a witness to any of the matters contained in the indictment." Lott also said that Knight had been leaving an average of thirty voicemails for him each night, and contrary to Lott's admonishments, Knight would not stop calling the prosecution and other agencies about his case. After a hearing, [3] Knight said that he still wanted Lott to represent him. The circuit judge warned Knight that Lott would be allowed to withdraw if Knight continued to ignore his advice.

         ¶9. Despite the circuit court's admonishments, Knight's behavior did not change. Approximately three months after the hearing on Lott's first motion to withdraw, Lott filed another motion to withdraw. Lott said that Knight disagreed about "several aspects" of his trial strategy; Knight no longer wanted his services; Knight insisted on imprudent and groundless objectives; and Knight continued to leave "dozens" of voicemails for him each night. After a hearing, the circuit court allowed Lott to withdraw. The circuit judge later found that Knight was indigent, so he appointed Steven Wallace as counsel for Knight.

         ¶10. Knight's case was further delayed after he failed to appear at his August 29, 2012 trial.[4] He was later arrested in Louisiana and again extradited to Mississippi. During a January 2013 hearing, Knight continued to behave erratically. Like he had done during previous hearings, Knight rapidly transitioned between various complaints that the circuit court had repeatedly addressed. Eventually, the circuit court ordered Knight to undergo a mental evaluation.

         ¶11. During Knight's July 31, 2014 competency hearing, Dr. Reb McMichael opined that Knight did not suffer from any mental illness or intellectual disability. Dr. McMichael said that Knight understood the proceedings against him, and he was capable of consulting with Wallace and helping with his defense. Dr. McMichael said that Knight often attempted to "go off on tangents" during his evaluation, but Knight was "redirectable." According to the report that Dr. McMichael prepared along with Dr. Amanda Gugliano, a psychologist, "Knight's version of the circumstances surrounding his current legal predicament is not the product of delusional thinking, or any other major mental disorder, but is the result of his personality organization."

         ¶12. After Wallace's cross-examination, the circuit judge asked Dr. McMichael if there was any reason to think that Knight would not be able to assist Wallace with his case. Dr. McMichael responded that Knight "does not have a major mental disorder," but that he "may choose not to cooperate." Dr. McMichael added that Knight "is not an easy person to interact with," but that was not because Knight had a "mental disorder." Dr. McMichael then concluded by stating: "I spent two hours with [Knight] in May [a]nd an additional hour with him this morning. And I think that if he chooses to cooperate, [and] confer with [d]efense [c]ounsel, he is able to do that." The circuit court ultimately found that Knight was mentally competent.

         ¶13. Despite the fact that the prosecution had successfully moved to amend the indictment, the prosecution decided to "re-present" the case to a grand jury. The new indictment[5] alleged that in Lowndes County sometime between February 12 and April 18, 2007, Knight committed sexual battery by penetrating Jane's vagina with his penis. The new indictment also charged that Jane was younger than fourteen at the time of the sexual battery, and Knight was at least thirty-six months older than Jane. Finally, the new indictment alleged that Knight was eligible for enhanced sentencing as a violent habitual offender. Knight went before the circuit court again on November 14, 2014, for his live arraignment related to the new indictment. He immediately announced ...

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