State v. Rimmer, 250 S.W. 3d 12 (Tenn. 2008).
The state found the defendant guilty of murdering his ex girlfriend. The defendant argued that the trial court erred on the jury instruction on reasonable doubt. Specifically, the defendant took issue with the phrase, “ reasonable doubt does not mean a doubt that may arise from possibility,” as an ambiguous terminology. He argued that phrase lowered the burden of proof from guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Held: Although the language of the instruction was unhelpful, the instruction read in its entirety properly instructed the jury on the meaning of reasonably doubt and did not lower the burden of proof from guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
During the middle 1980’s, Michael Dale RIMMER, the Defendant, had an on-again-off-again romantic relationship with the victim, Ricci Ellsworth.
They started dating sometime after the victim obtained a divorce in 1977 from her first husband,Donald Ellsworth. Later, after his relationship with the victim had come to an end, the Defendant was indicted for the aggravated assault and rape of the victim and the first degree burglary of her residence. In 1989, he entered pleas of guilt to each charge and was sentenced to the Department of Correction.
During his incarceration, the victim often accompanied the Defendant’s mother, Sandra Rimmer, on visits to the prison. Because the victim participated in a religious program that ministered to inmates from about 1988 to 1992, she saw the Defendant regularly. According to the Defendant’s mother, the victim and the Defendant displayed an affection for each other during the prison visits. Despite this purported renewal of their relationship, however, there was evidence that during this period of time, the Defendant informed two inmates, Roger LeScure and William Conaley, of his desire to kill the victim upon his release from the prison. He even described to LeScure how he intended to dispose of her body. The Defendant explained to the inmates that he blamed the victim for his incarceration and was entitled to money from her.
The Defendant was released by the Department of Correction in October of 1996 and began work at an auto body repair shop in Memphis. By that time, the victim, who was employed as a night auditor at the Memphis Inn, had remarried Donald Ellsworth.
On February 7, 1997, the victim was scheduled to begin her shift at 11:00 p.m. Her husband awakened her and kissed her goodbye. She drove to the hotel in her 1989 Dodge Dynasty. The only access to her office was through a door, which was locked, or through a small opening in the glass security window. Several hotel guests saw the victim at her office desk between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. Before 2:00 a.m., one of the guests noticed a “dark-maroonish brown” car that had been backed into an area near the hotel entrance. Although it was raining at the time, the trunk was open.
At about 2:30 a.m., Raymond Summers, a railroad supervisor with CSX Transportation, drove to the hotel when the management service was unable to make telephone contact with a work crew, which was staying there overnight. Because no one was at the front desk, Summers entered the office area. When he heard the sound of water running in the office restroom, he looked inside and discovered blood splatters on the sink, the wall, the toilet bowl, and some towels. He reported his findings to Shelby County officers who were leaving a nearby Denny’s Restaurant. The officers notified Linda Spencer, the hotel manager, who lived on the premises.
When they investigated, they discovered signs of a struggle in the office area. There were “puddles” of blood throughout the restroom. The sink was cracked, and the lid had been ripped off the commode. Police found the victim’s purse. There was a trail of blood approximately thirty-nine feet long that led from the restroom, through the equipment room, office, reception area, and to the vending space. The trail ended on the curb outside the night entrance, indicating that the victim may have been dragged from the restroom to the curb. Some $600 in cash was missing from the register, and three sets of sheets had been taken from the equipment room. Officer Robert Moore of the Memphis Police found a green cigarette lighter under a bloody towel and discovered the victim’s gold ring between the office and the bathroom.
Sergeant Robert Shemwell of the homicide department testified that during the investigation the police questioned Richard Rimmer, the Defendant’s brother, and Richard Rimmer’s ex-girlfriend, Joyce Frazier. According to Sergeant Shemwell, the Defendant appeared at his brother’s house during the morning hours after the murder. The Defendant’s car was muddy and so were his shoes. The back seat of the car appeared to be wet. There was a shovel inside. The Defendant had asked Richard Rimmer, who was a carpet cleaner, if he knew how to get blood out of carpet. Richard Rimmer admitted that sometime after he had learned of the victim’s disappearance, he disposed of the shovel in a dumpster.
The police learned that the Defendant left Memphis without taking the last paycheck he was due from his employer. He gave no notice of his departure. He also left without taking his work tools or the clothing he had stored in the room he occupied.
On March 5, 1997, Michael Adams, a Johnson County, Indiana deputy, stopped the Defendant, checked the license plate number on the Honda, and determined that the vehicle had been reported as stolen in early January. The Defendant was arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle and public intoxication. He registered .06 on a blood-alcohol test. A receipt in the vehicle indicated that the Defendant was in Myrtle, Mississippi on the day after the victim’s disappearance. Receipts from Florida, Missouri, Wyoming, Montana, California, Arizona, and Texas with dates ranging from February 13, five days after the police were alerted of the crime, to March 3, 1997, two days before the Defendant’s arrest, were found in the vehicle.
There were blood stains on the carpet and on a seat belt in the back seat of the Honda. Subsequent testing of the stains in the car revealed that the DNA from the blood was consistent with the bloodline of the victim’s mother, Marjorie Floyd, who lived in Florence, Alabama. It was also consistent with the blood type of the victim, as compared through a sample previously taken from a pap smear. Frank Baetchel, the FBI forensic expert who performed the tests, also examined a bloody hotel towel found at the Memphis Inn, concluding that the blood sample matched the stains found inside the Honda.
During the course of the investigation, the police had explored numerous leads. One report indicated that between 1:45 and 2:00 a.m., James Darnell, along with Dixie Roberts, saw two white males at the Memphis Inn. It was dark and the weather was rainy. He said that both men had blood on their knuckles and appeared to have been fighting. Darnell told officers that one of the men, who he believed to be a clerk, was behind the hotel window and appeared to be giving change to the other. Darnell inferred that the clerk was trying to get the other man, who was “very drunk,” to leave. Darnell also saw a dark-colored car “backed in front of the night entrance.” Darnell, when shown a photographic line-up, was unable to identify the Defendant as one of the two men. Two composite drawings were made of these individuals, based on Darnell’s descriptions.
During trail, the jury was instructed on reasonable doubt as follows:
Reasonable doubt is that doubt engendered by an investigation of all the proof in the case and an inability after such investigation to let the mind rest easily upon the certainty of guilt. Reasonable doubt does not mean a doubt that may arise from possibility.
Absolute certainty is not demanded by the law.
Rimmer was convicted of first degree murder of the defendant.
He appealed his conviction. On appeal he argued that the trial court erred in the instruction to the jury on the meaning of reasonable doubt.
Whether the phrase “ reasonable doubt does not mean a doubt that may arise from possibilities” included in the jury instruction lowered the burden of proof from guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Reasonable doubt is the inability to let the mind rest easily upon the certainty of guilt. It does not mean a doubt that may arise from mere possibility no matter how improbable.
Here, the court found that although the language in the jury instruction is not helpful, the instruction did not result in a denial f due process in context.
Here is how the court explained its position:
Jury instructions must be reviewed in their entirety. The sentence preceding the phrase at issue explains that reasonable doubt is the inability to “let the mind rest easily upon the certainty of guilt” after reviewing all the facts. The sentence following directs that absolute certainty of guilt is not required. In context, a fair interpretation is that reasonable doubt does not mean a doubt that may arise from mere possibility no matter how improbable.
Further, in order to determine whether there was harm to the Defendant by an ambiguous erroneous instruction, we must consider whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process. The significant question was whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury has applied the challenged instruction in a way that violates the Constitution. One ambiguous term does not necessarily constitute error.
By the application of this standard, we do not find a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied the burden of proof in an unconstitutional way.
The court concluded that the trail court did not err on the instructions on reasonable doubt because the instruction read in its entirety properly instructs the jury on the meaning of reasonable doubt.