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Posted by: Landry Butler on May 1, 2017

Head Comment: With concurring opinion by LEE.

Court: TN Supreme Court

Attorneys 1:

Steven C. Bush, District Public Defender; Phyllis Aluko and Barry Kuhn, Assistant Public Defenders (on appeal); Gerald D. Skahan, Larry Nance, and Kindle Nance, Assistant Public Defenders (at trial), for the appellant, James Hawkins.

Attorneys 2:

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andre´e Blumstein, Solicitor General; Jeffrey D. Zentner, Assistant Attorney General; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; Patience Branham, Marianne Bell, Jennifer Nichols, and Danielle McCollum, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Judge(s): CLARK

A jury convicted the defendant of the premeditated first degree murder of his girlfriend, who was the mother of his three children. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-202(a)(1) (2014). The jury also found the defendant guilty of initiating a false report concerning her disappearance and of abuse of her corpse, based on his sawing off her head, hands, and feet and throwing the remainder of her body over a bridge in Mississippi. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-16-502 (2014); id. § 39-17-312(a). At the conclusion of a separate sentencing hearing on the first degree murder conviction, the jury imposed the death sentence, finding that the prosecution had proven two statutory aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, id. § 39-13-204(i)(2), (13), and had established that these aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, id. § 39-13-204(g). For the remaining convictions, the trial court imposed consecutive sentences of twelve and six years, respectively, and ordered these sentences served consecutively to the death penalty. The defendant appealed, raising numerous issues, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his convictions and sentences. State v. Hawkins, W2012-00412-CCA-R3-DD, 2015 WL 5169157 (Tenn. Crim. App. Aug. 28, 2015). The case was thereafter automatically docketed in this Court for review, as required by statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-206(a)(1), (c)(1). We hold that: (1) the defendant‘s sentence of death was not imposed in an arbitrary fashion; (2) the evidence supports the jury‘s findings that the aggravating circumstances were proven beyond a reasonable doubt and that these aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt; and (3) the sentence of death is neither excessive nor disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the nature of the crime and the defendant. We also hold that: (1) admission of the defendant‘s statements was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt; (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to allow the defendant to enter guilty pleas to the noncapital offenses pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(b) at the beginning of trial, after the jury had been sworn; (3) the trial court did not err by admitting testimony about the victim‘s threats to call the police about the defendant‘s conduct as this testimony was non-hearsay; (4) the trial court did not err by admitting the victim‘s application for an order of protection against the defendant, pursuant to the forfeiture by wrongdoing exception to the hearsay rule; (5) the trial court did not violate Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b) by permitting the defendant‘s children to testify about his acts of violence and sexual abuse because this testimony was offered to prove motive and premeditation; and (6) any error in the prosecutorial rebuttal argument was not so improper or inflammatory as to prejudice the defendant. Accordingly, we affirm the judgments of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the trial court upholding the defendant‘s convictions and sentences. With respect to issues not specifically addressed herein, we affirm the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals and include relevant portions of the intermediate appellate court‘s decision in the appendix to this opinion.