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Taylor v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

October 15, 2019


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 04/21/2017





          TINDELL, J.

         ¶1. On July 26, 2011, a Lowndes County jury convicted Joshua Taylor of one count of capital murder for the death of William Stallings. Taylor appeals his conviction, asserting that the circuit court erroneously refused to give a lesser-included-offense jury instruction for second-degree murder and erroneously denied his motion to suppress statements he made to investigating officers. Because we find that Taylor's claims lack merit, we affirm his conviction and sentence.


         ¶2. On the night of May 19, 2011, Stallings went to visit his friend Michael Love. Love lived with his mother, Shirley, and his two siblings in a home in Lowndes County. Both of Love's siblings were out of town at the time. Stallings and Love went to sleep around 1 a.m.

         ¶3. Around 3 a.m., Love awoke to a loud banging on the front door. At first, Love assumed the sound was his siblings returning home. But when he went to inspect the noise, he found the front door wide open. Love exited the house but then heard a gunshot. Fearing for his safety, he ran into the woods and called 9-1-1.

         ¶4. Around the same time, Shirley heard "a big boom" and assumed her son had returned home. She opened her bedroom door to look but instead saw several men she did not recognize as well as part of a gun. Shirley slammed her door shut and fell to the floor. Shirley testified she then heard a gunshot before the men forcibly entered her room and rummaged through her purse. Afraid, Shirley began crying and praying. The men told her to shut up before finally leaving. A few minutes later, she heard another gunshot and remained on her bedroom floor until Love returned to the trailer. After Love returned, he and Shirley found Stallings dead due to a gunshot wound to the head.

         ¶5. Investigator Eli Perrigin, a member of the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department, investigated the shooting. After following up on several leads, Perrigin made multiple arrests in connection with the incident. After making these arrests, Perrigin soon received a call from an Alabama citizen who wished to speak about the investigation. The call came from Lacee Cox, Taylor's girlfriend of over a year. Fearing that the police had arrested the wrong suspects, Cox called to inform them about Taylor's activities on the night in question. Cox also gave Perrigrin Taylor's name as well as the names of Brandon Brown, Richard Lee, Johnny Brock, and Cameron Merriweather.

         ¶6. Perrigin decided to investigate the information Cox provided and first questioned Merriweather about the night in question. Merriweather provided information that led Perrigin to the remaining men, including Taylor. Brown, Lee, and Brock all gave similar statements to the police regarding the incident.

         ¶7. Perrigin first interviewed Taylor on May 27, 2011. Taylor received and signed a Miranda[1] waiver after Perrigin read Taylor his rights. This first interview was recorded, but the recording has subsequently been lost. Perrigin did, however, write a narrative of the interview in which Taylor initially denied any involvement in the incident but later confessed that he had gone to Mississippi with his friends on the night of the incident. Taylor still denied being involved with the break-in of the Loves' home or Stallings's death.

         ¶8. Perrigin spoke to Taylor a second time on the same day, May 27, 2011. This interview is the subject of Taylor's motion to suppress that the circuit court denied. In this interview, Taylor again signed a Miranda waiver after he was read his rights. On two occasions during this interview, Taylor indicated that he did not wish to talk about the incident anymore, but he never indicated that he wished for an attorney to be present. The investigators continued the interrogation, believing that they were authorized to do so based upon Taylor's actions. Taylor continued his conversation with the officers and within minutes admitted that he was the one who shot Stallings.

         ¶9. The following day, Taylor accompanied police to the site of the incident to help them find the discarded gun. Despite their best efforts, however, investigators were unable to find the gun used. Perrigin spoke to Taylor one final time on June 2, 2011. Unlike his prior interviews, Taylor initiated this interview himself. Taylor confessed that he felt bad for what he had done and that he and Merriweather were the only ones who should be charged with murder.

         ¶10. At trial, Cox, Brown, Lee, and Brock all testified against Taylor. Cox testified that on the night in question, she overheard Taylor, Brown, and Lee talking about going to "hit a lick," which Cox interpreted as "doing something that they didn't need to be doing." Taylor dropped Cox off at work and later drove her 1999 Crown Victoria to pick up his friends. When confronted by Cox the next day, Taylor admitted he and his friends had been at a house when one of his friends kicked in a door. Cox also told the police that Taylor initially admitted to shooting Stallings while he was asleep on the couch. Taylor later stated that he did not participate in the shooting, and from that point on, Taylor gave Cox conflicting stories by admitting to the murder and then denying participation.

         ¶11. Brown, Lee, and Brock all presented similar accounts to the jury of what happened on the night of Stallings's murder. Taylor and the other men all decided to cross the Alabama-Mississippi state line to purchase alcohol and drugs at a convenience store. However, instead of going to the store, Taylor drove the group to Love's house, where the group believed they would purchase the marijuana. Merriweather was the first to exit the car and knock on the door, but he received no answer. Merriweather then suggested moving the car out of sight because the design was similar to that of a police vehicle. After Taylor moved the car, he and Merriweather went back to the door. Brown, Lee, and Brock stood by the car at this time.

         ¶12. Brown testified that after a while, he and the others went to check on Taylor and Merriweather because they had been gone awhile. Once Brown and the others had approached the home, Brown stated that he saw Merriweather fire the gun at Shirley. After Merriweather shot the gun, Taylor took the gun from him and proceeded down the hallway toward Love's room. Brown testified that he, Lee, and Brock all left the home and walked back to the car. Later, the men heard a second gunshot and saw Merriweather and Taylor running from the house. The three men all testified that Taylor admitted to the group that he had shot Stallings and demanded they all keep quiet about that night.

         ¶13. Taylor argued at trial that his confession to Perrigrin was not voluntary because he had invoked his right to remain silent twice, yet investigators ignored it. Taylor also requested jury instructions for the lesser-included offenses of first- and second-degree murder. The circuit court gave an instruction for first-degree murder but refused to give an instruction for the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder. The jury ultimately found Taylor guilty of one count of capital murder on July 26, 2011, and the circuit court sentenced him to life without eligibility for parole.

         ¶14. Aggrieved, Taylor now appeals his conviction and sentence.


         ¶15. "We review a [circuit court's refusal to give] a lesser-included-offense jury instruction de novo." Smith v. State, 171 So.3d 542, 546 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015).

         ¶16. When we review a court's decision to deny a motion to suppress a confession,

we apply the familiar general rule that since the court sits as the fact-finder when determining the issue of whether an accused's confession has been intelligently, knowingly, and voluntarily given, we will only reverse the court's determination of this issue when such determination is manifestly wrong.

Keller v. State, 138 So.3d 817, 835 (¶16) (Miss. 2014). "[W]e will not disturb the court's determination on the admissibility of a confession unless the court applied an incorrect legal standard, committed manifest error, or rendered a decision which was contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence." Id.


         I. Lesser-Included Offense

         ¶17. Upon review, we find no error in the circuit court's refusal to give a jury instruction on the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder. A criminal defendant is entitled to jury instructions supporting his theory of the case but only where sufficient evidence supports such instructions. Gilmore v. State, 119 So.3d 278, 286 (¶13) (Miss. 2013). The Mississippi Supreme Court has held:

Our law is well-settled that jury instructions are not given unless there is an evidentiary basis in the record for such. . . . To warrant the lesser-included-offense instruction, a defendant must point to some evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could find him not guilty of the crime with which he was charged and at the same time find him guilty of a lesser-included offense.

Goodnite v. State, 799 So.2d 64, 69 (¶24) (Miss. 2001) (citation omitted) (emphasis added). Therefore, for a lesser-included-offense instruction to be appropriate, Taylor had to show sufficient evidence that a reasonable jury could find him not guilty of capital murder but still find him guilty of second-degree murder. See Smith, 171 So.3d at 546 (¶9). When determining the propriety of a lesser-included-offense instruction, "[w]e must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant." Gilmore, 119 So.3d at 286 (¶13). Also, "lesser-included-offense instructions should not be [given] on mere speculation." Franklin v. State, 136 So.3d 1021, 1026-27 (¶11) (Miss. 2014). We will only reverse the circuit court's refusal to give a lesser-included-offense instruction in circumstances where an evidentiary basis for the instruction exists in the record. Lee v. State, 469 So.2d 1225, 1230-31 (Miss. 1985).

         ¶18. Taylor was originally indicted for capital murder but now argues that he was entitled to a lesser-included-offense instruction for second-degree murder. Second-degree murder requires some evidence that the defendant killed the victim "in the commission of an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved heart, regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual." Miss. Code Ann. § 97-6-19(1)(b) (Supp. 2018) (emphasis added). Behavior constituting a depraved heart has been described as "conduct so gross as to be tantamount to a wanton disregard of, or utter indifference to, the safety of human life." Nichols v. State, 27 So.3d 433, 440 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (quoting Montana v. State, 822 So.2d 954, 966-67 (¶55) (Miss. 2002)).

         ¶19. Capital murder, on the other hand, is defined as "[t]he killing of a human being without the authority of law by any means or in any manner . . . [w]hen done with or without any design to effect death, by any person engaged in the commission of . . . burglary. . . ." Miss. Code Ann. § 97-3-19(2)(e) (Supp. 2018). Unlike simple murder and other categories of capital murder, the State is not required to prove malice to obtain a conviction for capital murder under section 97-3-19(2)(e). Ronk v. State, 172 So.3d 1112, 1126 (¶23) (Miss. 2015). As long as a reasonable jury could find that the defendant was engaged in the commission of one of the underlying felonies listed in section 97-3-19(2)(e), which includes burglary, and the victim's death resulted, the defendant is guilty of capital murder. See id. at 1127, 1130 (¶¶25, 35) (citing Jacobs v. State, 870 So.2d 1202, 1209 (Miss. 2004)). But if sufficient evidence is presented that separates the defendant from the underlying felony, the defendant may be entitled to lesser-included-offense instructions. See id. at 1127-28 (¶27). Therefore, to warrant a second-degree-murder instruction, Taylor would have had to point to some evidence in the record that separated him from the underlying felony of burglary associated with the killing.

         ¶20. As previously stated, the jury heard testimony from Taylor's girlfriend, Cox, Brown, Lee, and Brown. Lacee Cox testified that Taylor went to the trailer "to hit a lick" and that, after entering the trailer, Taylor shot a man who was lying on a couch. Brown, Lee, and Brock all testified similarly regarding the night of the crime. Each testified that the group went to the trailer to get marijuana. Taylor and Merriweather both knocked on the trailer door and then disappeared behind the trailer. Brown testified that, after hearing a gunshot, he went behind the trailer and saw that the door appeared to have been kicked open. Brandon then saw Taylor take a gun from Merriweather. Brown returned to the car with Lee and Brock, and then the three men heard a second gunshot. They testified to seeing Taylor and Merriweather run out of the trailer after the second shot was fired, with Taylor still in possession of the gun. Taylor then told the men, "I shot a guy, I shot a guy," and for them not to speak to anyone about the incident. Merriweather testified only that he knew Taylor, Brown, Lee, and Brock and invoked his Fifth Amendment rights as a co-defendant to capital murder. Taylor did not testify at trial but did give a statement to law enforcement that he and Merriweather were in the trailer that night. He also stated that he took a gun from Merriweather and used the gun to shoot Stallings. At the close of trial, the circuit court refused to give Taylor's second-degree-murder instruction by stating:

If you're in a house where you don't have the right to be in the middle of the night and you shoot a gun and you kill somebody, how can that be second-degree murder? I think there's caselaw that says that can't be. I mean the only evidence before the jury is that he was in the house and they had obtained entry by apparently kicking the door in. I think they've submitted a first-degree murder and it was a lesser-I don't see how you can get a second-degree murder so I'm going to refuse [proposed defense instruction 1].

         ¶21. We agree that Taylor fails to make a sufficient showing of evidence whereby a reasonable jury could have acquitted him of capital murder and then convicted him of second-degree murder. Taylor's only piece of evidence justifying the second-degree-murder instruction was his statement to investigators that "he did not intend to shoot [Stallings] and that he simply shot the gun as a way to wake up [Stallings] from his sleep." This evidence, however, does not separate Taylor from the burglary. Sufficient evidence existed to show that Taylor gained entry into the house by force and was there to "hit a lick." This certainly could lead a jury to find Taylor guilty of burglary, and the fact that Stallings died as a result elevates the crime to capital murder.

         ¶22. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Taylor, we find no evidentiary basis upon which a reasonable jury could find Taylor not guilty of capital murder but guilty of second-degree murder. We therefore find no error in the circuit court's decision to refuse to give this lesser-included-offense instruction.

         II. Motion to Suppress

         ¶23. We also find no error in the circuit court's determination that Taylor's confession was knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily given. We therefore affirm the denial of ...

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