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Lawson v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

October 15, 2019


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 05/30/2018






          TINDELL, J.

         ¶1. A Lamar County jury convicted Phillip Lawson of committing two counts of fondling and one count of statutory rape against his former stepdaughter Sarah.[1] The Lamar County Circuit Court then sentenced Lawson to concurrent fifteen-year sentences for the fondling convictions and to a consecutive thirty-year sentence for the statutory-rape conviction, with all three sentences to be served in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC). The circuit court ordered Lawson's sentence to be served day for day without eligibility for parole or probation and required Lawson to register as a sex offender upon his release from custody.

         ¶2. On appeal, Lawson raises the following arguments: (1) the circuit court gave the jury an improper limiting instruction regarding Lawson's prior bad acts; (2) the circuit court allowed an expert witness to improperly bolster Sarah's testimony and credibility; and (3) the circuit court improperly commented on the evidence.

         ¶3. Because we find no reversible error, we affirm Lawson's convictions and sentences.


         ¶4. Sarah's mother, Anna, attended high school with Lawson. After losing contact with each other after high school, the two later reconnected through social media. In 2010, Anna lived in Arkansas and was going through a divorce. In January 2011 after her divorce, Anna and her children (Sarah and two younger siblings) moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where Lawson resided. Anna and the children initially lived in an apartment Lawson had before moving into Lawson's home in Hattiesburg (the Hattiesburg house). During the summer of 2011, Lawson, Anna, and Anna's children all moved into a house at Beaver Lake (the Beaver Lake house) in Purvis, Mississippi. Sarah, who had been diagnosed with scoliosis, needed back surgery. In March 2013, Anna and Lawson married, and Lawson added Sarah to his insurance to cover her surgery. Around the same time as the marriage, the family moved to a home in Glenn West (the Glenn West house) in Purvis.

         ¶5. Sarah underwent back surgery in May 2013. She spent a week or two recovering in the hospital before returning home, where she continued to be on bed rest for several weeks and to require help walking. After Sarah's surgery, Anna and Lawson's relationship began to deteriorate. Anna and the children eventually moved out of the marital home in January 2014.

         ¶6. In October 2015, Sarah began to make allegations that Lawson had sexually abused her. Sarah first shared the allegations with her boyfriend. The school counselor then learned of the allegations and spoke to Sarah. The allegations were then reported to a Department of Human Services (DHS) social worker, who in turn relayed the allegations to Investigator David Bullock with the Lamar County Sheriff's Office. Investigator Bullock obtained a copy of DHS's report on the sexual-abuse allegations. After Sarah's forensic interview, Investigator Bullock spoke with Anna, who filed a criminal affidavit against Lawson. Lawson was arrested, and a grand jury indicted him for committing two counts of fondling and one count of statutory rape against Sarah.

         ¶7. At Lawson's trial, Anna testified that her relationship with Lawson began to deteriorate shortly after Sarah's surgery in May 2013. Anna stated that she and Lawson began to argue about where she had been and what she had been doing. Anna claimed that Lawson became verbally aggressive toward her and, at times, toward her children and that he became physically aggressive toward her in the bedroom. After she and her children moved out of the marital home in January 2014, Anna testified that Lawson and Sarah remained in touch. Anna stated that Sarah would sometimes mention that Lawson had texted her and would show Anna some of the text messages. Anna testified that it seemed as though Lawson initiated most of the contact, but she admitted that she did not scroll through all of the messages. Anna denied ever seeing text messages from Sarah wishing Lawson a happy Father's Day or asking Lawson to come see her (Sarah).

         ¶8. Anna testified that Sarah shared the sexual-abuse allegations with her a few weeks after Sarah had told the school counselor. Anna testified that Sarah moved out of her house and began living with her boyfriend. According to Anna, the move initially occurred due to "typical . . . mother-daughter fussing, fighting . . . ." Anna stated, however, that Sarah also wanted to talk to someone about the sexual-abuse allegations but did not necessarily want to talk about the abuse with her mother. Anna testified that Sarah also sometimes questioned whether Anna believed her disclosure about the sexual abuse. Anna stated on both direct examination and cross-examination that Sarah did not have a tendency to lie and that Sarah was terrified to lie because of the possible consequences.

         ¶9. The State next called Robin Bixler, who conducted Sarah's forensic interview. The State tendered Bixler as an expert in forensic interviewing. Lawson's attorney raised no objection to Bixler's expert-witness qualifications. He did, however, raise continuing objections to the admission of Bixler's testimony on the grounds that (1) Sarah was sixteen years old when Bixler interviewed her and was capable of testifying for herself and (2) Bixler would improperly bolster Sarah's trial testimony if Bixler stated that Sarah had "acted consistently" with a sexually abused child. The circuit court overruled the defense's objections and admitted Bixler's testimony. Bixler described Sarah as apprehensive and uncomfortable when they spoke. Despite the discomfort, Bixler stated that Sarah demonstrated an understanding of body parts represented on anatomical diagrams and that Sarah identified on the diagrams those body parts the two discussed during their interview. Bixler provided no testimony about the specific statements, disclosures, or allegations that Sarah made during their interview. Bixler testified, however, that her interview findings were consistent with the allegations of sexual abuse.

         ¶10. Sarah, who was nineteen years old at the time of the trial, testified that Lawson began inappropriately touching her soon after her family moved into the Hattiesburg house. Sarah testified that she was watching television in her room one day when Lawson entered and started touching her. Sarah stated that everyone else in her family had gone to grab dinner and that she and Lawson were alone. Sarah began to cry during her testimony and to have difficulty providing verbal answers to the questions. The circuit court allowed the State to produce an anatomical drawing so Sarah could point to the body parts Lawson had touched. Concerned that not all the jurors could see the anatomical drawing, the circuit judge stated, "I'm just going to simply explain to you that she [(Sarah)] pointed to the breast and the vagina area on the diagram . . . ." The defense raised no contemporaneous objection to the judge's statement. When asked what part of Lawson's body had touched her, Sarah pointed to the penis on the male anatomical diagram. She stated that Lawson had touched "both of [her] private areas" with "his private area[, ]" had touched her both outside and inside her clothes, and had removed her pants. When asked what happened when Lawson's private area touched her private area, Sarah finally responded that Lawson had raped her. Sarah further testified that, after raping her, Lawson left her room and went outside the house.

         ¶11. Sarah stated that she did not disclose the incident to anyone because Lawson had threatened her. Sarah explained that Lawson was in the military and "was in a position to where he could do anything to anyone." Sarah also testified that Lawson always paid for her phone and would take her phone away when she got into trouble. Anna had earlier testified that Lawson was the one who typically enforced any punishment, such as taking away Sarah's phone and computer or grounding Sarah. Anna described the phone as Sarah's "lifeline" and testified that the punishment Lawson enforced on Sarah sometimes lasted as long as several weeks or a full month.

         ¶12. According to Sarah, the sexual abuse happened "a lot" at the Hattiesburg house when no one else was around. She later testified that the abuse had occurred about three times a week during the time that her family lived with Lawson. Sarah testified that the family moved to the Beaver Lake house when she was in seventh grade and that the sexual abuse continued there. The family later moved to the Glenn West house. In May 2013, Sarah underwent her back surgery and spent the summer recovering. Sarah testified that Lawson entered her room one day while she was still on bed rest. Although Lawson did not rape her, Sarah testified that he did begin to touch her. When asked to identify the body parts Lawson had touched, Sarah again pointed to the anatomical drawing. The State asked whether Sarah was pointing to the same two body parts that the circuit judge had earlier clarified for the jury. Sarah responded affirmatively to indicate that Lawson had touched both her breasts and vagina. Sarah stated that she and Lawson were both wearing their clothes during the incident and that Lawson was "touching himself" while he touched her. Sarah testified that Lawson was only in her room for a little while and that he had "cleaned up" with towels before he left.

         ¶13. Sarah stated that the sexual abuse continued during the winter between Christmas 2013 and when her family moved out of the Glenn West house in February 2014 and that it even occurred after her family stopped living with Lawson. According to Sarah, there was a day after her family left the Glenn West house when her mother was on a date and her sister was sleeping, and Lawson entered her bedroom and again raped her. Sarah testified that the abuse stopped after that incident. She admitted, however, that she never disclosed this alleged final incident in her interview with Bixler or in her statement to police. Instead, her statement to police provided that Lawson's abuse had ended once her family moved out of the Glenn West house.

         ¶14. Sarah also admitted that she remained in weekly contact with Lawson through text messages after her family left the Glenn West house. Sarah explained that Lawson still paid for her phone, which she did not want to lose. Sarah testified that she sometimes texted Lawson to see how he was doing. After being asked to prom, Sarah texted Lawson and sent him a picture. Sarah stated that she sent Lawson the text message about prom because she wanted him to buy her a prom dress. Although she also texted Lawson and asked him to bring her the Christmas presents he had bought for her and her siblings, Sarah testified that her boyfriend was with her when she received the presents from Lawson. Sarah stated that she eventually disclosed Lawson's abuse to her boyfriend a year or two after the abuse had ended. Sarah testified that her boyfriend then relayed the information to his mother. Eventually, the school counselor and DHS learned of the allegations.

         ¶15. The circuit court also allowed Lawson's former stepdaughter, Jane, [2] to testify about instances of sexual abuse she suffered during Lawson's relationship with her mother. The State offered Jane's testimony under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 404(b) to show Lawson's motive, intent, and absence of mistake or accident in sexually abusing Sarah. Jane testified that she was thirteen when her mother began to date Lawson and that she was sixteen when the two married. Jane testified about multiple instances where Lawson approached her and offered her money if she would allow him to see her naked and touch her. Jane stated that the first time she refused Lawson's offer, he gave her $100 and told her not to reveal the conversation to anyone. Jane stated that Lawson cut off her cell phone the following Monday. A few weeks later, Jane stated that she again refused Lawson's offer. Later that same day, Jane testified that Lawson forced her to put on lingerie from Victoria's Secret, pushed her onto her bed, "put his hand in me down there[, ]" and tried to make her touch him. Jane stated that Lawson turned her cell phone back on the following day. Jane testified to other instances where Lawson entered her bedroom and stuck his hand inside her. Jane stated that Lawson told her no one would believe her if she revealed the abuse. Jane testified that the abuse lasted for about four months until her mother walked into her bedroom one morning and finally caught Lawson assaulting Jane.

         ¶16. Following Jane's direct examination, the circuit court excused the jury. Outside the jury's presence, the circuit judge expressed his opinion to the parties that they had reached "dangerous territory" as far as "the case integrity" was concerned, and he warned the parties against presenting "anything that would prejudice . . . [the jurors] any further." The circuit judge explained:

I just want to make sure that everybody knows that we want to be careful of tainting or influencing this jury and letting this jury lose focus of whether or not the alleged victim in this particular case was a victim of statutory rape or sexual battery. That's what this case is about. It's not about whether or not the Defendant committed a crime against this witness, and I just want to be clear.

         ¶17. Lawson's attorney asked the circuit court to give the jury a limiting instruction regarding Jane's testimony. When the jurors returned to the court ...

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