Michael Angelo Coleman killed Leon Watson,
69, during a 1979 Memphis robbery. Watson was killed in his car after
leaving home to go to a nearby grocery store. Coleman confessed to the
crime and led police to Watson’s body, which had been left in a field.
Watson’s empty wallet and items from his automobile were scattered
near his body.
Supreme Court of Tennessee
July 27, 1981
MICHAEL ANGELO COLEMAN, APPELLANT
SHELBY CRIMINAL. HON. JOSEPH B. McCARTIE, JUDGE.
DOCKET NUMBER 3
Cooper, J. wrote the opinion. Concur: Harbison, C.j.
Fones, and Drowota, JJ. Brock, J. Concurs on all issues except the
death penalty. See Dissent in State v. Dicks, The opinion of the court
was delivered by: Cooper
Appellant Michael Angelo Coleman has appealed his
conviction of murder in the first degree in the perpetration of a
robbery, and the sentence of death. He questions the denial of his
motion to sever his trial from that of his codefendant, Michael
Anthony Bell, the refusal of the trial court to remove a juror for
alleged cause, the admission in evidence of appellant's confession and
that of his codefendant, and the sufficiency of the convicting
evidence generally. Appellant also insists that sections of T.C.A. §
39-2404, dealing with punishment for first degree murder, are
After consideration of the several assignments of
error and of the entire record, we are of the opinion that the verdict
and sentence are sustained by the evidence and that no reversible
error was committed in the trial. We are also of the opinion that
T.C.A. § 39-2404 is constitutional.
Appellant and his co-defendant were convicted of
the killing of Leon Watson during a robbery, which occurred in Memphis,
Tennessee, on May 2, 1979. That morning, Mr. Watson left his home to
go to a nearby grocery store. He did not return. At about 10:00 p.m.
Mrs. Watson was contacted by a representative of the Memphis Police
Department and was taken to view a white 1964 Buick automobile, which
she identified as being that of her husband's. Blood was found on the
seat and floor of the automobile, and a bullet was found in the left
Appellant and co-defendant Bell were arrested about
one hour later on another charge. The next morning, at about 5:15
a.m., both appellant and Bell were advised of their Miranda rights.
Appellant then told the officers of finding a body of a black man in a
field near Third Street in Memphis. He directed officers to the scene
where they found the body of Mr. Watson. Mr. Watson's empty billfold
was on the ground near his body. Items from Mr. Watson's automobile
were strewn around the body, indicating the automobile had been
ransacked before it was driven from the scene.
Appellant was advised again of his Miranda rights.
Thereafter, he confessed to shooting and killing Mr. Watson in Mr.
Watson's automobile. He also admitted going through the victim's
billfold after the shooting, and stated he had removed the C.B. radio
from the automobile, but had decided not to keep it.
Codefendant Bell, in his statement to the police
and in his testimony at the trial, named appellant as the man who shot
and killed Mr. Watson. He also testified that a pistol belonging to Mr.
Watson was taken after the shooting and that appellant had taken the
gun to his grandmother's house.
Appellant insists the statements given by him to
police officers were not given freely and voluntarily and, therefore,
should not have been admitted in evidence. It is a truism that an
involuntary confession is not admissible in evidence. However, we find
nothing in the record to support appellant's contention that his
confession was not voluntary. The trial Judge held a pretrial hearing
on appellant's motion to suppress, and denied the motion "upon the
testimony of Patrolman A.C. Speight and Sergeant L.A. Simpson." The
transcript of the suppression hearing is not in the record, but both
officers testified in the trial and were examined concerning the
circumstances attendant the giving of statements by the appellant.
Their testimony unequivocally shows that appellant's confession was
freely given and was voluntary. Before any statement was made,
appellant was advised of the rights due him under the Miranda decision,
and he was advised of his rights a second time before he confessed to
the killing of Mr. Watson.
Counsel argues from the fact that appellant was
placed in jail at 1:00 a.m. and questioning by the officers began at
5:00 a.m., that appellant was denied the opportunity to sleep over
such a period of time that his resistance had dissipated and that he
would sign anything in order to sleep. The argument is ingenious but
is not borne out by the record. As noted by counsel, what appellant
did between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. is not recorded. What is recorded
is the fact that appellant instigated the questioning by indicating
that he had information to give the officers.
Considering the totality of circumstances attendant
the interrogation of appellant, we are of the opinion the statements
given to the police by appellant were the fruit of proper custodial
interrogation, were voluntarily given, and were properly admitted in
evidence. We are also of the opinion that the confession of appellant,
buttressed as it was by physical evidence and the testimony of co-defendant
Bell was sufficient to justify the jury finding beyond a reasonable
doubt that appellant was guilty of "murder in the first degree in
perpetration of a robbery."
Appellant has not specifically challenged the
sufficiency of the evidence that is the basis of the jury's imposition
of the death penalty, but directs his challenge to the issue of
constitutionality of the Death Penalty Act. However, T.C.A. §
39-2406(c) specifically requires this court, in reviewing a sentence
of death for murder in the first degree, to determine whether (1) the
sentence of death was imposed in an arbitrary fashion; (2) the
evidence supports the jury's findings of a statutory aggravating
circumstance or statutory aggravating circumstances; (3) the evidence
supports the jury's finding of the absence of any mitigating
circumstances sufficiently substantial to outweigh the aggravating
circumstance or circumstances so found; and (4) the sentence of death
is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar
cases, considering both the nature of the crime and the defendant."
A jury may impose the death penalty on a defendant
found guilty of murder in the first degree only upon its finding that
one or more aggravating circumstances, listed in the statute, are
present, and that such circumstance or circumstances are not
outweighed by mitigating circumstances. See T.C.A. § 39-2404(i).
In this case, in addition to finding that appellant
was guilty of murder in the first degree in the perpetration of a
robbery, the jury found appellant had been "previously convicted of
one or more felonies other than the present charge which involved the
use or threat of violence to the person." The jury also specifically
found that there were no mitigating circumstances sufficiently
substantial to outweigh the statutory aggravating circumstances, and
fixed appellant's sentence at death.
We have heretofore related, in capsule form,
evidence supporting the jury's finding that appellant is guilty of
murder in the first degree in the perpetration of a robbery. As to the
other aggravating circumstance found by the jury, the record shows
that appellant had been convicted for assault with intent to commit
robbery with a deadly weapon, assault with intent to commit murder in
the first degree, kidnapping, and robbery with a deadly weapon. The
testimony detailing appellant's felony convictions, each of which
involved the use of threat or violence to the person of the victim, is
not controverted. Furthermore, appellant introduced no evidence of a
mitigating circumstance. He only called one witness at the sentencing
hearing, Dr. John Hutson, a professor of psychiatry at the University
of Tennessee Center for the Health Sciences. Dr. Hutson's testimony
necessarily was confined to the results of his examination of
appellant before trial. Dr. Hutson found "no evidence of any serious
mental illness which would have affected appellant's ability to
appreciate either the wrongfulness of his actions or his ability to
conform his behavior to the requirements of the law at that time." He
also expressed the opinion that appellant was fully able to appreciate
the charges against him and had the ability to confer with an attorney
in preparation of his defense.
We are of the opinion that the evidence clearly
supports the jury's imposition of the death penalty on its finding of
aggravating circumstances listed in the Death Penalty Statute and the
lack of any mitigating circumstance. We are also of the opinion that
under the circumstances of this case, the imposition of the death
penalty by the jury was neither arbitrary nor excessive or
disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases.
Appellant has challenged the constitutionality of
the Tennessee Death Penalty Act in a number of respects. The issues
raised by appellant have been considered and rejected by this court in
other cases. For example, the contention that the statutes are
unconstitutional in that they do not require notice to the accused of
the particular aggravating circumstances upon which the State will
rely was considered and rejected in State v. Berry,
592 S.W.2d 553 (Tenn. 1980), and in
Houston v. State,
593 S.W.2d 267 (Tenn. 1980), cert. denied,
101 S.Ct. 251 (1980). In Houston, (supra)
., the contentions now made with respect to the alleged vagueness of
the standards for guiding the jury's sentence determination, use of
hearsay evidence at the sentencing hearing, and that the imposition of
the death sentence is cruel and inhuman treatment were considered and
rejected. See also State v. Dicks, 615 S.W.2d 126 (Tenn. 1981).
Likewise found to be without merit was the challenge to the efficacy
of Rule 47 of this court to afford a meaningful or realistic
comparison of cases arising under the death penalty statutes so as to
prevent the arbitrary or capricious imposition of that penalty. See
State v. Groseclose, et al.,
615 S.W.2d 142 (Tenn. 1981).
Appellant also has assigned as error the action of
the trial Judge in refusing to sever his trial from that of his co-defendant
Bell. A motion for severance is addressed to the discretion of the
trial Judge, and his exercise of discretion in denying such a request
will not be reversed unless it appears that the defendants were
prejudiced by his failure to do so. Tomlin v. State,
207 Tenn. 281, 286,
339 S.W.2d 10, 12 (1960); Dorsey v. State,
568 S.W.2d 639, 641 (Tenn. Cr. App.
1978). In Woodruff v. State,
164 Tenn. 530, 538, 539,
51 S.W.2d 843, 845 (1932), this court
It may have been to the interest of each that he be
tried alone, but the orders of the court are molded to protect rights,
and not merely the interests, of persons accused of crime. The state,
as well as the persons accused, is entitled to have its rights
protected, and when several persons are charged jointly with a single
crime, we think the state is entitled to have the fact of guilt
determined and punishment assessed in a single trial, unless to do so
would unfairly prejudice the rights of the defendants.
Appellant contends that he was unfairly prejudiced
by being forced to trial with his co-defendant Bell, who had plead
guilty to the offense for which they both were indicted. Bell's guilty
plea, standing alone, did not require severance of appellant's trial
from that of Bell's, since the plea did not implicate appellant. See
Dorsey v. State, 568 S.W.2d 639 (Tenn. Cr. App. 1978). The
introduction of Bell's out-of-court statement into evidence by the
State did raise the specter of a Bruton violation, which could have
been avoided by a severance of Bell's case from that of appellant, but
this specter was removed by Bell taking the witness stand and
subjecting himself to examination by appellant's counsel. See Nelson
v. O'Neil, 402 U.S. 622,
91 S.Ct. 1723, 29 L.Ed. 222 (1971). Under
these circumstances, we see no abuse of discretion on the part of the
trial Judge in refusing to sever the cases.
Appellant also insists the trial Judge erred in
failing to remove a juror for alleged cause. The transcript, as
approved by counsel for appellant, does not contain the voir dire
examination. Neither does counsel detail the voir dire in either his
motion for a new trial or in his brief. He does indicate in his brief
that the juror (who is not identified) expressed the opinion he could
fairly decide the case on the evidence. There is nothing in the record
to indicate that the unnamed juror was other than impartial.
The assignments of error are overruled. The
judgment of conviction and the sentence imposed pursuant thereto is
affirmed. The sentence will be carried out as provided by law on
January 14, 1982, unless otherwise stayed or modified by appropriate
authority. Costs are taxed against appellant.
Concur: Harbison, C.J. Fones, and Drowota, JJ.
Bock, J. Concurs on all issues except the death
penalty. See Dissent in State v. Dicks, 615 S.W.2d 126, 132.
Michael Angelo Coleman