Richard L. Odom was resentenced to death on
January 16, 2008 for the murder of 77-year-old Mina Johnson, who was
raped and killed while Odom was on the run from a murder sentence in
Death penalty for convicted murderer, rapist
Richard Odom upheld on 3rd try
By Lawrence Buser
March 3, 2011
The Tennessee Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the
death sentence of a Mississippi man convicted of raping and murdering
an elderly woman in 1991 in a Medical Center parking garage.
The case of Richard Odom has been up and down the
appellate court ladder several times and at one stage cost a judge her
seat when opponents accused her of being soft on crime.
Odom, 49, has been sentenced to death by three
separate Shelby County juries over the past 20 years, though until
Thursday the case had been overturned on appeal.
He was convicted and sentenced to death for raping
and stabbing to death 77-year-old Mina Ethyl Johnson in May 1991 as
she was exiting her car in a parking garage at Madison and Pauline.
In 1992, Odom was convicted and sentenced to death
the first time, but the state Supreme Court overturned the sentence
after finding that the murder did not meet the legal definition of
heinous, atrocious and cruel.
The decision then became a rallying cry for victims'
rights advocates who helped oust Justice Penny White in 1996 when she
was up for a retention vote.
Three years later, a new jury sentenced Odom to
death, but the Supreme Court in 2004 again reversed the sentence,
ruling that state prosecutors should not have been allowed to give the
jury graphic, violent details of a prior murder by Odom.
In 2007, yet a third jury heard the evidence and
sentenced him to death, the sentence affirmed Thursday by the high
"We conclude that because the sentencing hearing
was performed in accordance with this state's statutory mandates and
procedural rules regarding capital sentencing hearings, the
defendant's death sentence was not arbitrarily imposed," Justice Gary
Wade wrote in the unanimous opinion.
The defendant, Richard Odom, was convicted of first degree murder and
sentenced to death for raping and killing seventy-seven-year-old Mina
Ethel Johnson in 1991 in Memphis, Tennessee. The evidence presented at
the re-sentencing proceeding is summarized as follows.
On May 10, 1991, Mina Ethel Johnson's body was
found on the back seat floorboard of her car in a parking garage in
Memphis, Tennessee. The victim's lower body had been left exposed, and
she was bleeding from her anus and vagina. There were multiple stab
wounds in the victim's back and two bloody hand prints on her hips.
Sergeant Ronnie McWilliams of the Memphis Police
Department testified that fingerprints found in the victim's car led
to Odom's arrest on May 13, 1991. A search revealed that Odom was in
possession of a "large knife," which he kept under his shirt. Odom
initially told officers that his name was "Otis Smith" and that he had
been imprisoned in Mississippi for a murder that occurred in 1978.
Odom confessed that he intended to steal the victim's purse and forced
her into the back seat of her vehicle. When the victim said, "What are
you doing, son," Odom replied, "I'll give you your damn son." Odom
admitted that he raped the victim and that the victim told him that
she "never had sex with a man before." Odom admitted that the knife
officers found in his possession was the knife he used to stab the
victim. He did not recall how many times he stabbed the victim. Odom
said that he found no money in the victim's wallet or purse, and that
he left the victim in her car and fled. McWilliams testified that the
defendant was "open" and "kind of bragging a little bit about the
Dr. Jerry Francisco, who performed an autopsy on
the victim, testified that the victim bled to death from a stab wound
to the right ventricle of her heart. The victim also had stab wounds
to her liver and right lung and two defensive wounds to her right hand.
The victim suffered tears to the posterior part of her vagina, which
were caused by a traumatic event such as attempted penetration, and
sperm was found in her vagina. Dr. Francisco testified that the
injuries were inflicted while the victim was alive, that the wounds
would not have caused instant death, and that the wounds would have
caused immediate pain.
John Sullivan, a family friend, testified that Mina
Ethel Johnson was a "shy, genteel" woman who had never married or had
children and who was capable of managing her own affairs. Louise Long,
the victim's sister, testified that the victim was retired from her
job as secretary at an insurance company and was active in her church.
She testified that the victim had broken her foot and was going to the
doctor when she was killed. Long also stated that she missed the
victim because she no longer had "any family at all to go to."
In addition to the evidence regarding this offense,
the prosecution presented evidence regarding the facts of the
defendant's two prior violent felony convictions to support the
aggravating circumstance it relied upon to seek the death penalty. See
Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(2) (prior convictions for felony
offenses whose statutory elements involved violence to a person). The
prior felony convictions included a 1992 robbery conviction in Shelby
County, Tennessee, and a 1998 first degree murder conviction based on
events that occurred in 1978 in Rankin County, Mississippi, when the
defendant was seventeen years old.
With regard to the 1992 robbery conviction, the
prosecution presented the testimony of the victim, Lillian Hammond.
Hammond testified that on May 8, 1991, she was approached by the
defendant outside of her office at Shelby State Community College in
Memphis, Tennessee. The defendant demanded Hammond's purse and
threatened to kill or harm Hammond if she made any noise. Hammond
testified that the defendant made vulgar sexual comments and said, "I
want you." The defendant grabbed Hammond's arm and caused her to fall
to the ground. He took Hammond's purse and ran away.
With regard to the 1998 first degree murder
conviction, the prosecution presented evidence that the defendant
killed the victim, Mary Rebecca Roberts, on May 4, 1978. Terri Roberts,
the victim's daughter, testified that her parents owned a drive-in
theater in Pearl, Mississippi, and lived in a trailer next to the
(The defendant pleaded guilty to this offense in
1978 and received a life sentence. After filing a successful petition
for writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, the defendant was
retried and again convicted in 1998)
A police officer, Ernest Simmons, testified that he
was called to the Roberts' trailer and discovered the body of Mary
Rebecca Roberts slumped in a recliner. The victim was covered in blood
and had gunshot wounds to her face. The recliner apparently had been
moved some nine feet from the wall and placed directly in front of the
door. Two knives and bullet casings were found in the trailer. A
bloody hand towel and a "stainless steel Army mess-kit knife" also
were found in the trailer; the knife blade was bent at "a 90 degree
angle." There were bloodstains in the trailer and at the drive-in
where a safe was kept. Simmons testified that the murder weapon was a
.22 caliber bolt action rifle that required reloading between shots.
According to Simmons, the police later questioned
the defendant, then seventeen, who told officers that he went to the
trailer because he was owed money. When Roberts tried to hit him with
a flower pot, the defendant hit her and chased her to a bedroom. The
defendant then stabbed the victim with a knife and forced her to leave
her trailer and open a safe at the drive-in from which he took $ 255
and two guns. The defendant told police officers that he and the
victim returned to the trailer and that he "sat her down" in a
recliner. When Roberts pleaded for her life, the defendant told her, "Shut
up. I'm trying to think." The defendant claimed that the victim was
shot when she grabbed the barrel of the gun he was holding. The
defendant admitted, however, that he shot the victim a second time
because he "was scared" and "wanted to make sure she was dead." The
defendant also admitted that he threw one of the guns into a swamp and
hid the other gun and some of the money. Simmons testified that the
defendant "showed no remorse" and had been "extraordinarily calm" when
he gave his statement to police.
Dr. George Sturgis, who performed the autopsy,
testified that Roberts had a fatal gunshot wound to her left eye, a
fatal gunshot wound to the right side of her forehead, and a critical
stab wound in her chest that had penetrated her left lung. The gunshot
to the victim's forehead had been fired from close range. Dr. Sturgis
also testified that the victim suffered lacerations and puncture
wounds to her neck and chest, as well as bruises to her neck that
An assistant attorney general testified that the
defendant had shown no remorse during the trial in 1998, and that the
defendant exhibited an attitude as if it "was somewhat of a game." The
prosecutor also testified that she saw no indication that the
defendant was suffering from any mental illness.
The defendant presented several witnesses in
mitigation at the re-sentencing proceeding. Gloria Shettles Johnson, a
private investigator who assists attorneys with capital cases,
testified that she obtained childhood records, conducted interviews,
and prepared a social history that included the following information.
The defendant was born on August 13, 1960, in
Mississippi. His parents had married when the father was eighteen and
the mother was fifteen. The defendant had an older sister and a
younger sister. The defendant was often left in day care for days at a
time. The defendant's father drank heavily, and his mother did not
take care of the children. The defendant's parents gave him up for
adoption when he was two and a half; he never again saw his mother and
had only a brief encounter with his father at the age of thirteen.
According to Johnson, the defendant was adopted by
Jimmy and Shirley Odom in 1963. Although Jimmy Odom was very "stern"
and "loud," he was not physically abusive. About one year after the
adoption, however, the Odoms divorced and Shirley Odom married Marvin
Bruce. Bruce was "cruel to the children." He sexually abused the
defendant and his step-brother and threatened to kill them if they
told anyone. Bruce put hot sauce on the defendant's food and also put
hot sauce directly in the defendant's mouth whenever the defendant
asked for food. Bruce also berated the defendant into his teens for
bed wetting on a regular basis. The defendant suffered from frequent
episodes of sleep-walking; on one occasion, he urinated in the
refrigerator while sleep-walking, and on several occasions, he
urinated in a car.
At age twelve, the defendant began a pattern of
delinquent behavior and running away from home. At age thirteen, the
defendant was charged with larceny in the juvenile system and was
institutionalized at the Columbia Training School. A psychologist at
the institution diagnosed the defendant as schizoid and determined
that he was "incorrigible," "brain damaged," and "not fit for society
at age thirteen." At age fifteen, a psychologist conducted another
evaluation and found that the defendant was "destined" to spend his
life in institutions. At age sixteen, the defendant was released into
the community on supervised juvenile parole. At age seventeen, the
defendant murdered Mary Rebecca Roberts.
Johnson testified that one of the defendant's
adoptive brothers, Larry Odom, had a criminal record and had served
ten years in prison. Johnson was unable to verify whether a second
adoptive brother, Jimmy Odom, had a record. Johnson acknowledged,
however, that others who had grown up under the dominion and control
of Marvin Bruce had not committed murder.
Johnson further testified that the defendant had earned a
correspondence paralegal degree while in prison and had scored between
90 and 100% in several areas of the law. While imprisoned for the
Mississippi murder of Mary Rebecca Roberts, the defendant's behavior
was good enough to be transferred to a county jail where he was a cook
and was elevated to "trustee" status. Johnson conceded that the
defendant had been able to accomplish these things despite the 1974
psychological report that he was "brain damaged."
Dr. Dennis Earl Schmidt, a neuropharmacologist,
testified that he, Dr. Steven Paul Rossby, and Dr. Benjamin Johnson
visited the defendant in prison in 1999 to perform a court-ordered
spinal tap. Dr. Schmidt later analyzed samples of the defendant's
spinal fluid by using "high-performance liquid chromatography," and he
testified that the test revealed the defendant had only about half the
normal level of serotonin. He further explained that the level of
serotonin found in the spinal column is directly indicative of
serotonin function in the brain.
Dr. Rossby, a molecular neurobiologist, testified
that Dr. Schmidt's test results indicated that the defendant's
serotonin level was "severely, extremely abnormal" and the lowest
level ever seen at his lab. Citing studies conducted in Finland and
Sweden, Dr. Rossby explained that low serotonin levels are very
strongly linked to "impulsive behaviors[,] including unrestrained
aggression, violence, [and] rage." Although Dr. Rossby stated that low
serotonin levels could cause a person to exhibit low self-control of
impulses, he explained that "whatever impulses that are released by
this low self-control depends upon the individual, depends on their
birth, depends on their heredity, depends on their early childhood
experiences." He testified that the victim's use of the word "son" may
have "served as a trigger to release the rage that [the defendant]
felt toward his mother or mother figures . . . ."
Dr. Rossby conceded that low serotonin levels have
also been associated with nonviolent behaviors such as eating
disorders and gambling addiction. In addition, he admitted that there
were no studies conclusively linking low serotonin levels to violent
behavior and that he could not state that the defendant's low
serotonin level caused him to commit the murder of Mina Ethel Johnson.
Although the defendant had no problems controlling impulsive rage
while in prison, Dr. Rossby stated that the ability to control
impulses is not tested as often in the structured environment of
Prosecution's Rebuttal Evidence
In rebuttal, the prosecution presented the
testimony of Dr. John Hutson, a clinical psychologist. Although Dr.
Hutson testified that he was quite impressed with Dr. Rossby's
testimony as a whole, he opined that based upon the current scientific
understanding of the role of serotonin, it cannot really be said "that
serotonin causes anything." In addition, Dr. Hutson testified that he
was not aware of any literature stating that there is a causal
relationship between serotonin, violent behavior, obesity, depression,
suicide, or other abnormal behaviors.
At the conclusion of the sentencing proceeding, the
jury determined that the evidence of the single aggravating
circumstance outweighed the evidence of mitigating circumstances
beyond a reasonable doubt and sentenced the defendant to death for the
felony murder of Mina Ethel Johnson. After the Court of Criminal
Appeals affirmed the sentence, the case was docketed automatically
before this Court.
Richard L. Odom