STATE OF TENNESSEE v. HOWARD HAWK WILLIS - Articles

All Content


Posted by: Chandra Williams on Jul 6, 2016

Head Comment: With concurring opinion.

Court: TN Supreme Court

Attorneys 1:

Hershell D. Koger, Pulaski, Tennessee (on appeal); Kathleen Morris, Nashville, Tennessee (on appeal); and Howard Hawk Willis, pro se (at trial), for the appellant, Howard Hawk Willis.

Attorneys 2:

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andree Sophia Blumstein, Solicitor General; James E. Gaylord, Senior Counsel (on appeal); and Dennis Brooks, Assistant District Attorney General, (at trial), for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Judge(s): KIRBY

This appeal arises from the murder of two teenagers, accompanied by the dismemberment of one of them. A jury convicted the defendant, Howard Hawk Willis, of two counts of premeditated first-degree murder and one count of felony murder in the perpetration of a kidnapping. The jury sentenced the defendant to death on each conviction. The defendant appealed, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his convictions and sentences.1 On appeal, the defendant contends, inter alia, that certain incriminating statements he made to his ex-wife should have been excluded because she was acting as an agent of the State at the time the statements were made. He asserts that the admission into evidence of the statements violated his right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution. For purposes of the right against self-incrimination, we hold that this is a case of “misplaced trust” in a confidant and there was no violation of the Fifth Amendment. The defendant also argues that the admission of the statements violated his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution. The incriminating statements to the ex-wife were made during in-person meetings with her at the jail and during recorded telephone calls from jail. As to statements made to the ex-wife prior to indictment, we hold that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel had not attached, so there was no violation regardless of whether the ex-wife was acting as an agent of the State. As to statements made in person to the ex-wife after indictment, the evidence shows only that the State willingly accepted information from a cooperating witness. We hold that, for a cooperating witness or informant to be deemed a “government agent” for purposes of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the defendant must show that the principal— the State, personified by law enforcement officers—manifested assent, either explicitly or implicitly, to have the cooperating witness act as a government agent, and that the State had some level of control over the witness’s actions with respect to the defendant. Agency cannot be proven based solely on the actions of the alleged agent, so proof that the ex-wife repeatedly contacted law enforcement is not sufficient in and of itself to show that the State assented to have her act as its agent. Therefore, the admission into evidence of the statements made in person to the ex-wife after indictment did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. As to the incriminating statements made by telephone, we hold that, by placing the telephone calls to his ex-wife from jail with full knowledge that all calls were subject to monitoring and recording, the defendant implicitly consented to the monitoring and recording of his conversations and waived his Sixth Amendment rights. After full review, we affirm the judgments of the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals upholding the defendant’s two convictions of first degree murder, and we affirm the sentences of death.