Rebecca Ann Cleghorn v. State of Arkansas

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December 7, 2005



v. [CR 03-93-1]




Olly Neal, Judge

An Ashley County jury convicted appellant Rebecca Cleghorn of second-degree murder. She was sentenced as a habitual offender to thirty years in the Arkansas Department of Correction. On appeal, appellant argues that (1) the trial court abused its discretion by admitting into evidence, State's Exhibit Three, an autopsy photograph of a cut performed on the victim by a surgeon at the hospital prior to his death and (2) the trial court erred when it denied her motion for directed verdict.

On February 19, 2004, the State filed an amended felony information charging appellant with "Murder II" pursuant to Ark. Code Ann. ยง 5-10-103, in that with the purpose of causing serious physical injury to another person, appellant caused the death of Billy King or she knowingly caused the death of Billy King under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. The information also alleged that appellant had two or more prior felony convictions.

At appellant's February 24, 2004 jury trial, the following evidence was established. Appellant and the victim, Billy King, lived together. On June 20, 2003, Mr. King'sdaughter, son-in-law(Steven Dale Williams), and grandchildren spent the night. The following morning, Mr. King's daughter and grandchildren went to visit the daughter's mother. Mr. Williams remained at the residence with appellant and Mr. King. He testified that appellant and Mr. King started drinking that morning. He said that, after his wife and the children left, appellant started cleaning up. While cleaning, appellant complained that she wanted to go somewhere. Mr. King agreed to take appellant fishing. Mr. Williams said that he and Mr. King loaded the rod and reels. As they waited on appellant, Mr. King began to feel the affects of the alcohol he had consumed and started nodding off. He said that, when appellant realized this, she became angry and an argument erupted between appellant and Mr. King. He said that, when Mr. King went to walk away, the argument dissolved into a physical altercation. Mr. Williams broke the altercation up, and everyone went and sat at the table in the dining-room area.

Mr. Williams testified that things had appeared to calm down, when all of a sudden appellant and Mr. King started arguing again. He saw appellant hit Mr. King in the head. He said that the blow knocked Mr. King out of his chair and that, while Mr. King was down, appellant climbed on top of him and withdrew a knife. Mr. Williams testified that appellant threatened to kill Mr. King. He said he grabbed the knife from appellant and placed it in the sink. During his testimony, he identified State's Exhibit One as the knife.

After the second altercation, things proceeded to calm down. Appellant went into the kitchen to make everyone a drink. Mr. Williams said that when appellant returned she was stirring the drinks with the knife. While they were having their drinks, appellant lunged toward Mr. King and got on top of him. Mr. Williams said that appellant hit Mr. King in the head and that Mr. King fought back. He said that the two changed positions to where "she was half on him and he was half on her." He described appellant as being in a "blind rage." He stated:

And, anyway, as I reached and grabbed him, I was pulling him up, and I felt something. But I'm not sure if that's when it happened or what. I felt a jolt. But as I was pulling him up off of her, he still had a hold of her hair and she still was reaching up at the side of his head or something, a shirt, maybe. I'm not sure. But all of sudden his grip got a little weaker. I thought he was letting go, but he was, he was losing blood is what he was doing.

As Mr. Williams proceeded toward the couch with Mr. King, Mr. King started to slouch. Mr. Williams testified that:

And I thought he was having some spell `cause his blood pressure falls. I thought he was having a spell `cause he couldn't afford to buy his medicine all the time `cause he had been off work from his heart. And it, he had to take it just when he needed it instead of on a regular basis.

So I was, like, "Do you need your medicine? You know, what do I do? You know, what" - - `Cause I didn't know nothing about his medicine. And he never answered me. He tried to make a couple of sounds, but by then he was about to go all the way down. And I kind of fell back on the couch and he was kind of sitting on me. And I couldn't figure out - - You know, I just assumed it had to be the blood pressure thing.

And I felt this wet spot on me and I thought that it was one of the drinks that had gotten knocked off or something and just gotten me wet. It was a stab wound bleeding very severely from his leg.

When Mr. Williams asked appellant what she had done, appellant replied "Yeah, I stabbed that M - -." Mr. Williams tried to stop the bleeding, and appellant left the room. When appellant returned, she was cussing; however, when she saw how badly Mr. King was injured, appellant panicked. Mr. Williams then ran across the street to call 9-1-1.

Deputy Danny Sanders of the Ashley County Sheriff's Office testified that he responded to the 9-1-1 call. He said that as he and ambulance personnel approached the carport, appellant exited the home. He said that appellant had blood on her legs, arms, hands, and face. When he asked her, "Who's the cutter?," appellant replied that she was. Deputy Sanders detained appellant and placed her in handcuffs.

At around this same time, Corporal Dale Donham of the Arkansas State Police arrived. When Corporal Donham approached Deputy Sanders, Deputy Sanders explainedthat appellant had confessed to stabbing Mr. King. Corporal Donham secured appellant's handcuffs and escorted her to a police car. He had appellant Mirandized, and then asked her where was the knife. Appellant replied that it was in the sink. Corporal Donham recalled that appellant asked how badly she had hurt Mr. King. He then proceeded toward the house, where he encountered Mr. Williams exiting the home. Corporal Donham testified that Mr. Williams was also covered in blood. He said that Deputy Sanders approached Mr. Williams and started talking to him. Corporal Donham then continued inside the house. When he entered the kitchen, he found the knife in the sink. He said that the knife was wet and appeared to have been washed.

Prior to the testimony of Dr. Charles Kokes, the medical examiner, the trial court held a hearing, out of the jury's presence, concerning State's Exhibit's Three and Four. State's Exhibit Three was a photograph depicting a close-up of Mr. King's leg wound. State's Exhibit Four was a photograph depicting the bruising and swelling of Mr. King's face. The State said that it chose the photo used as State's Exhibit Three because it believed Dr. Kokes would testify that it was more accurate picture of Mr. King's wound area than some alternative photographs.

During the hearing, Dr. Kokes testified that State's Exhibit Three showed the depth of Mr. King's wound. He explained that medical intervention had enlarged the interior aspect of the leg. He said that he could accurately relay to the jury how the medical intervention had changed the nature and aspect of the wound.

Appellant had no objections to State's Exhibit Four but objected to State's Exhibit Three on the ground that the changes to the wound caused by medical intervention greatly distorted the wound to such a degree that the photo was more prejudicial than probative. The trial court overruled appellant's objection. In making its ruling the trial court stated:

That's one of the reasons the Court asked Dr. Kokes the questions concerning the changes in the nature and aspects of the wound as a result of surgical intervention. Obviously, all of this wound as it's depicted in the picture was not caused by the defendant, although it may have resulted from her actions if the jury so finds. So under the circumstances, I think [appellant's counsel] has adequate opportunity to outline these changes and, with the jury, and to lead them to understand that it looked different, I guess, before the surgical intervention. And I'm going to overrule the objection because I do think it is relevant and I don't find that the probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice considering everything we know here now.

When the trial proceeded, Dr. Kokes testified as follows. He said that Mr. King had a sharp-force injury to his right thigh and blunt-force injuries on his legs. He explained that a sharp-force wound is either a cut or a stab caused by some sort of penetrating sharp device, usually a knife. When shown State's Exhibit Three, he said:

State's Exhibit Three is a photograph that shows the front of Mr. King's right thigh, which is where the stab wound is located. This particular stab wound was centered on the front of the thigh thirty inches above the base of the heel. And in this particular exhibit, State's Three, the hands in the picture are mine. I'm pulling apart the edges of the injured area in order to show the depth of that particular injury. Most of the injury that's depicted in this particular exhibit is not from the initial stab injury. The injury was lengthened by surgeons at the hospital in order to gain internal access to vascular or vessel damage that was caused by the wound path.

This wound originally when viewed had an overall length of five inches. About three inches of the wound were oriented, roughly, up and down, and then the lower two inches were angulated slightly toward the midline. Just above the area of angulation in this wound was where it originally had started from. One could see a little notched area on the longer arm of this overall injury that indicated the upper end. The lower end of the stab wound was where it angulated toward the midline. But as far as this picture is concerned, what I've done is remove the surgical staples that were there when I initially examined Mr. King's body and pulled the edges back and depict the deep structure that had been injured by the passage of a knife or a knife-like object.

He also explained that the photograph showed to some extent that the path of the knife extended deep into the underlying tissues. Dr. Kokes estimated the depth of penetration at about three and three-quarter inches. He explained that a stab wound to the thigh of this nature could theoretically cause death or serious protracted disfigurement and did so in this case.

Dr. Kokes testified that Mr. King sustained blunt-force injuries prior to his death but that these injuries did not contribute significantly in Mr. King's death. He said that the wound path went into the thigh and hit the femoral artery, the main artery that supplies blood to the leg. He explained that when the femoral artery is injured it is a source of major bleeding. Dr. Kokes's examination indicated that the major mechanism involved in Mr. King's death was loss of blood. He said that given the vascular injuries that Mr. King sustained and the lack of some other reason for his death, it was clear that Mr. King died from his thigh injury. Dr. Kokes believed that State's Exhibit One, the knife, was consistent with the wound depth and path that he found.

On cross-examination, Dr. Kokes testified that the primary purpose in taking the photograph used as State's Exhibit Three was to try to demonstrate the depth of the stab wound and show the vascular structure that was injured. He said that the photograph was not used to achieve depth penetration, instead he used the photograph to document the damage to the internal structures and give a general qualitative sense of the wound's relative depth.

At the conclusion of Dr. Kokes's testimony, the State rested. Appellant then moved for directed verdict, arguing that the State had failed to prove she acted purposely or knowingly. The trial court denied her motion.

During her case in chief, appellant put on the testimony of several family members who attested to her love for Mr. King. Appellant gave a slightly different version of events leading up to Mr. King's stabbing. She said that, on the morning of June 21, she and Mr. King accompanied a friend to the liquor store. On their way back home, they consumed beer and margaritas. She said it was normal for them to consume large quantities of alcohol. She said that, when they arrived home, she told Mr. King she wanted to go somewhere and Mr. King said they would go fishing. After he and Mr. Williams loaded the car, Mr. King cameinside and said he wanted to take a nap. Mr. King then laid down on the bed. Appellant said that, when she reiterated her request to go somewhere, Mr. King came into the kitchen and started beating her in the head. Appellant said she fought back. Mr. Williams broke the fight up, and appellant went to sit in a chair. She testified that Mr. King then came over and started hitting her again and that was when she grabbed the knife from the table. Appellant did not remember when she got the knife. She also did not remember stabbing Mr. King. Appellant said that she had blood on her hands and remembered washing her hands and the knife. She asserted that she did not intend to kill or cause Mr. King harm that would cause death. She further asserted that she stabbed Mr. King in self-defense.

At the end of her testimony, appellant rested and renewed her motion for directed verdict. The trial court, again, denied her motion. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and appellant was sentenced to thirty years' imprisonment. From that decision comes this appeal.

Because of double-jeopardy concerns, we consider challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence before addressing all other arguments on appeal. Saul v. State, Ark. App. , S.W.3d (June 22, 2005). Motions for directed verdict are challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence. Thomason v. State, Ark. App. , S.W.3d (May 25, 2005). In reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State and consider only the evidence that supports the verdict. Cluck v. State, Ark. App. , S.W.3d (June 8, 2005). We have often stated the test in determining the sufficiency of the evidence - whether there is substantial evidence to support the verdict. Id. Substantial evidence is evidence forceful enough to compel a conclusion one way or the other beyond suspicion or conjecture. Thomason v. State, supra.

Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-10-103 (Supp. 2005) provides that a person commits murder in the second in the degree if (1) she knowingly causes the death of anotherperson under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life or (2) with the purpose of causing serious physical injury to another person, she causes the death of any person. Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-2-202 (Repl. 1997) defines "purposely" and "knowingly" as follows:

(1) Purposely. A person acts purposely with respect to his conduct or a result thereof when it is his conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result;

(2) Knowingly. A person acts knowingly with respect to his conduct or the attendant circumstances when he is aware that his conduct is of that nature or that such circumstances exist. A person acts knowingly with respect to a result of his conduct when he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result[.]

Appellant argues that the State failed to show that she acted knowingly or purposely. A criminal defendant's intent or state of mind is rarely capable of proof by direct evidence and must usually be inferred from the circumstances of the crime. Price v. State, 347 Ark. 708, 66 S.W.3d 653 (2002). Because intent cannot be proven by direct evidence, the jurors are allowed to draw upon their common knowledge and experience to infer it from the circumstances. Watson v. State, Ark. , S.W.3d (June 24, 2004). Intent may also be inferred from the type of weapon used, the manner of its use, and the nature, extent, and location of the wounds. Coggin v. State, 356 Ark. 424, 156 S.W.3d 712 (2004). Because of the obvious difficulty in ascertaining a defendant's intent or state of mind, a presumption exists that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of her acts. Price v. State, supra.

Here, there was substantial evidence establishing that appellant acted either purposely or knowingly. First, the fact that appellant went and retrieved the knife after it was first taken from her suggests that appellant acted intentionally. Second, appellant expressed a desire to kill the victim. Furthermore, appellant announced to the police officers that she hadstabbed the victim. And lastly, the wound appellant inflicted penetrated the main artery providing blood to the victim's leg. Thus, based on the aforementioned evidence, there was substantial evidence establishing appellant's intent.

Appellant also argues that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting into evidence State's Exhibit Three, a photograph of the victim's leg wound. The admissibility of photographs lies in the sound discretion of the trial judge and will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. Smart v. State, 352 Ark. 522, 104 S.W.3d 386 (2003). When photographs are helpful to explain testimony, they are ordinarily admissible. Id. The mere fact that a photograph is inflammatory or is cumulative is not, standing alone, sufficient evidence to exclude it. Harper v. State, Ark. , S.W.3d (Oct. 7, 2004). Even the most gruesome photographs may be admissible if they assist the trier of fact by shedding light on some issue, proving a necessary element of the case, enabling a witness to testify more effectively, corroborating testimony, or enabling jurors to better understand the testimony. Id. Other acceptable purposes are to show the condition of the victim's body, the probable type or location of the injuries, and the position in which the body was discovered. Id. Pictures may also be helpful to the jury by showing the nature and extent of wounds and the savagery of the attack on the victim. Id.

Here, the photograph corroborated the testimony of the medical examiner. It also showed the extent and depth of the victim's wound. Therefore, based on this evidence the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it allowed State's Exhibit Three.


Glover and Vaught, JJ., agree.