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State v. Wood

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

July 16, 2019

CRAIG M. WOOD, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF GREENE COUNTY The Honorable Thomas Mountjoy, Judge


         Craig Wood appeals a judgment finding him guilty of one count of first-degree murder, § 565.020, RSMo 2000, and sentencing him to death.[1] This Court has exclusive appellate jurisdiction. Mo. Const. art. V, § 3. The judgment is affirmed.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On the afternoon of February 18, 2014, Carlos and Michelle Edwards saw 10-year-old Hailey Owens walking down the sidewalk near their home in Springfield. A tan Ford Ranger truck drove past Hailey, turned around, and pulled alongside her. The driver, later identified as Wood, asked Hailey for directions. As Hailey began to walk away, Wood opened the door and told her to come back. Hailey turned and stepped toward the truck. Wood lunged at Hailey, and pulled her into the truck. Mr. Edwards ran toward the truck, yelling at Wood to stop. Wood sped away. Mrs. Edwards called 9-1-1 to report the incident and the truck's license plate number. The truck was registered to Wood's parents, but Wood was the primary driver.

         Springfield police officers surveilled Wood's home. They observed a tan Ford Ranger truck pull into the driveway. The truck's license plate number matched the number Mrs. Edwards reported. As an officer approached, Wood exited the truck and tossed a roll of duct tape into the truck bed. Wood, nervous and smelling of bleach, acknowledged he knew why the officers were there.

         Wood voluntarily accompanied officers to police headquarters. Wood admitted the Ford Ranger was his, but declined to answer any questions regarding Hailey's location. Officers observed an abrasion and dried blood on Wood's lower lip, dried blood on one of his fingers, and red vertical marks on his neck and near his groin. His hat appeared to have bleach stains. Wood told officers he made two trips to Walmart earlier in the day to purchase bleach and drain cleaner. Wood also said he went to a laundromat, and his laundry was still there.

         Officers went to Wood's house to look for Hailey. They entered through an unlocked back door. A strong odor of bleach emanated from the basement. The basement steps and floor were wet. A fan was running, and a scrap of duct tape was on the floor. There were empty bleach bottles and several plastic storage tubs. The officers secured the house and left.

         After obtaining a search warrant, the officers returned and fully searched Wood's home. Wood's bed was stripped of sheets and blankets. On the bedroom dresser, police found a folder containing two handwritten stories detailing fantasies of sexual encounters between an adult male and 13-year-old girls. The folder also contained photographs of girls who were students at the middle school where Wood worked as an aide and football coach.

         In the basement, the officers found Hailey's nude body wrapped in black plastic bags, stuffed into a 35-gallon plastic tub. Hailey's body, stiffened from rigor mortis, was wet and smelled of bleach. Her lips, cheek, and ear were bruised. Ligature marks indicated Wood tied Hailey by the wrists, and she struggled to free herself. A .22-caliber shell casing lay on the basement floor. The shell casing was fired from a .22-caliber rifle locked inside a gun safe in a storage room.

         An autopsy showed Hailey died from a gunshot to the back of her neck, killed by a .22-caliber bullet that passed through the base of her brain. Wood fired the fatal shot from point blank range, placing the barrel of the gun on the back of Hailey's neck before pulling the trigger. Hailey's vagina and anus were lacerated and bruised in a manner consistent with sexual assault.

         While Wood had locked the murder weapon away in a safe, officers found several guns larger than .22-caliber and several shotguns left in open view throughout Wood's home. In the bedroom, officers found a shotgun leaning against the wall and a larger caliber handgun on the nightstand next to the bed. An FBI agent testified the .22-caliber rifle would make less noise and less mess than other weapons found in the house.

         Officers discovered Hailey's clothing in a dumpster behind a strip mall near Wood's home. Surveillance video showed Wood placing Hailey's clothes in the dumpster. A receipt in Wood's truck showed he purchased a laundry bag and duct tape from Walmart on the evening of Hailey's murder. Police also obtained video footage from Walmart showing Wood purchased bleach and drain cleaner approximately an hour after abducting Hailey.

         Wood did not testify or present evidence during the guilt phase. During guilt phase opening statements, Wood's counsel argued Wood did not deliberate before killing Hailey. The state's closing argument emphasized the evidence showing Wood purposely and deliberately killed Hailey. The state argued, "I submit to you that when you place the muzzle, the end of the barrel of a gun, against the back of the base of the skull and you pull the trigger, there's only one purpose you can have, and that's to kill someone. Your common sense tells you that." The state argued Wood deliberately killed Hailey because he chose "the smallest caliber weapon he has, that will make the least mess and the least noise," and then locked the murder weapon away in a gun safe. The state concluded that considering this evidence in conjunction with evidence Wood attempted to conceal his crime by stripping the sheets from his bed, bleaching and hiding Hailey's body, and disposing of her clothes in a dumpster behind a strip mall proved beyond a reasonable doubt Wood deliberately killed Hailey. The jury found Wood guilty of murder in the first degree.[2]

         During the penalty phase, the state presented a detective's testimony that he found no connection between Wood and Hailey or her family. A computer forensic examiner testified that after an Amber alert was issued for Wood's truck, a friend sent a text message to Wood asking "You haven't been hunting, have you." Another friend texted, "Oh, great, I just got an Amber Alert about a gold Ford Ranger. What have you and bear done???" Wood's dog was named Bear.

         The state presented victim impact testimony from the mother of one of Hailey's friends, Hailey's teacher, her great-grandmother, two aunts, and a pastor. The witnesses testified Hailey was a happy and loving child. Hailey's death left an "unfillable void" in her family and traumatized her brother. Hailey's teacher testified that, after Hailey's murder, her classmates' behavior changed and they struggled to cope with Hailey's death. Hailey's aunt testified more than 10, 000 people attended a vigil for Hailey. The pastor testified "countless parents" told him they no longer allowed their children to play unsupervised in their front yards or walk to a friend's house.

         Wood presented testimony from his parents, three friends, a priest, and two guards from the Greene County jail. Wood's parents testified regarding Wood's problems with depression and substance abuse, but noted he was employed consistently and had no significant criminal history. Wood's friends testified they were shocked when he was arrested because such a crime was out of character. One friend noted Wood once saved a man from an apartment fire. None of Wood's friends were aware he had sexual fantasies about young teenage girls. The priest testified that, since his arrest, Wood renewed his faith, studied the Bible, and regularly met to discuss what he had done. The jail guards testified that, aside from hoarding pills for an apparent suicide attempt, Wood caused no problems.

         The jury found the following statutory aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt:

The murder of Hailey involved torture and depravity; that the defendant killed Hailey after she was bound or otherwise rendered helpless by the defendant, and the defendant thereby exhibited a callous disregard for the sanctity of all human life;
The defendant's selection of the person he killed was random and without regard to the victim's identity and that defendant's killing of Hailey thereby exhibited a callous disregard for the sanctity of human life;
The murder of Hailey was committed for the purpose of avoiding arrest;
The murder of Hailey was committed while the defendant was engaged in rape;
The murder of Hailey was committed while the defendant was engaged in sodomy;
The murder of Hailey was committed while the defendant was engaged in kidnapping;
Hailey was a witness or potential witness of a pending investigation of the kidnapping of Hailey.

         The jury unanimously found the foregoing aggravating circumstances but deadlocked on punishment. The jury did not unanimously determine the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating circumstances.

         Because the jury deadlocked on punishment, the circuit court determined the appropriate sentence as required by § 565.030.4. The circuit court specifically referenced the six aggravating circumstances found unanimously by the jury and stated it "does accept and agrees with the factual findings of the jury as set forth in its verdict as to punishment." The circuit court then determined "the facts and circumstances in mitigation of punishment were not sufficient to outweigh facts and circumstances in aggravation of punishment." Finally, "based upon factual findings of the jury," the court determined death was the appropriate sentence.

         Wood presents nine points on appeal challenging the circuit court's evidentiary rulings, the state's closing argument, the decision to strike a juror for cause, and the constitutional validity of § 565.030 and § 565.032 governing Missouri's death penalty procedure.[3]

         I. Evidentiary Claims

         Wood raises four points asserting the circuit court erred by overruling his objections to the admission of evidence. "A trial court has broad discretion to admit or exclude evidence during a criminal trial, and error occurs only when there is a clear abuse of this discretion." State v. Hartman, 488 S.W.3d 53, 57 (Mo. banc 2016) (internal quotation omitted). "A trial court abuses its discretion only if its decision to admit or exclude evidence is clearly against the logic of the circumstances then before the court and is so unreasonable and arbitrary that it shocks the sense of justice and indicates a lack of careful, deliberate consideration." State v. Blurton, 484 S.W.3d 758, 769 (Mo. banc 2016) (internal quotation omitted). "This Court will reverse the trial court's decision only if there is a reasonable probability that the error affected the outcome of the trial or deprived the defendant of a fair trial." Id.

         A. Cell phone photographs properly admitted

         Wood claims the circuit court abused its discretion during the guilt phase by overruling his objection to the admission of 32 photographs from Hailey's cellphone. The circuit court reviewed the photographs before overruling Wood's objection and concluded they were relevant and admissible.

         The photographs were taken from 11:10 a.m. to 4:40 p.m., just minutes before Wood abducted Hailey. The photographs depicted Hailey, her dog, family, friends, stuffed animals, the neighborhood where she was walking, and her friend's handwritten lyrics to a popular song. Wood argues the photographs were improper victim impact evidence during the guilt phase because most of the photographs were cumulative and had no logical or legal relevance to disputed facts pertaining to the murder charge.

         "Evidence must be logically and legally relevant to be admissible." State v. Prince, 534 S.W.3d 813, 817 (Mo. banc 2017). "Evidence is logically relevant if it tends to make the existence of a material fact more or less probable." Id. (internal quotation omitted). "Evidence is legally relevant when the probative value of the evidence outweighs unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, waste of time, or cumulativeness." State v. Taylor, 466 S.W.3d 521, 528 (Mo. banc 2015) (internal quotation omitted). "Photographs are relevant if they depict the crime scene, the victim's identity, the nature and extent of the wounds, the cause of death, the condition and location of the body, or otherwise constitute proof of an element of the crime or assist the jury in understanding the testimony." State v. Collings, 450 S.W.3d 741, 762 (Mo. banc 2014) (internal quotation omitted).

         The disputed element during the guilt phase was deliberation. Section 565.002(3), RSMo 2000, defined deliberation as "cool reflection for any length of time no matter how brief."[4] The element of deliberation may be proven by the circumstances surrounding the crime. Collings, 450 S.W.3d at 760. Although Wood admitted he killed Hailey, "the state, having the burden of proving defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, should not be unduly limited in its quantum of proof." State v. Griffin, 756 S.W.2d 475, 483 (Mo. banc 1988).

         The photographs of Hailey and the neighborhood where she was walking were logically and legally relevant because they assisted the jury with understanding the circumstances surrounding the crime. The photographs confirmed the timeline of events and showed Hailey was wearing the same clothing Wood later discarded in the dumpster. Wood's attempt to dispose of Hailey's clothing and conceal the crime supports an inference of deliberation. See State v. Tisius, 92 S.W.3d 751, 764 (Mo. banc 2002). Finally, the photographs assisted the jury with understanding the nature and extent of the injuries Wood inflicted on Hailey by showing she lacked any significant injuries prior to the abduction. The fact Hailey lacked injuries prior to the abduction assisted the jury with understanding the multiple injuries Wood inflicted, including ligature marks indicating Hailey struggled to free herself. Evidence of multiple injuries and prolonged struggle are relevant to the state's burden of proving the disputed element of deliberation beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. The photographs were relevant and admissible.

         To the extent the photographs of Hailey's stuffed animals, pets, family, and song lyrics are less relevant, the issue is whether the allegedly erroneous evidentiary ruling was so prejudicial that there is a reasonable probability it affected the outcome of the trial. Hartman, 488 S.W.3d at 57. The state briefly mentioned the photographs in the guilt phase closing argument to establish the timeline of events and the fact Hailey had no injuries before Wood abducted her. The state's argument, therefore, was limited to referencing the most relevant photographs. In any event, the overwhelming weight of the evidence clearly established deliberation, and negates any reasonable probability the outcome would have been different even if the circuit court had excluded some of the less logically relevant photographs.[5]

         B. Gun evidence properly admitted

         Wood claims the circuit court abused its discretion by admitting photographs and testimony regarding firearms, ammunition, and related items found in his home. Wood argues the evidence was logically irrelevant and prejudicial because the only possible purpose was to show he was a "gun-crazed, dangerous person with a propensity for violence."

         Evidence of weapons not connected to the accused or the offense at issue are generally inadmissible. State v. Hosier, 454 S.W.3d 883, 895 (Mo. banc 2015). Because Wood's sole defense during the guilt phase was lack of deliberation, the state's case hinged on showing deliberation. The evidence of firearms of varying calibers and gauges found throughout Wood's home shortly after he killed Hailey was logically and legally relevant to show deliberation because it tended to prove Wood deliberately chose the smallest weapon from his collection to facilitate his efforts to cover up the murder. In addition to Wood foregoing the multiple weapons stored throughout the house, the evidence also showed that in the bedroom where the evidence suggested Wood raped Hailey, officers found a shotgun leaning against the wall and a large-caliber handgun on the nightstand next to the bed. Wood used neither one of those readily accessible weapons. Instead, Wood used the small, .22-caliber rifle officers found locked in a gun safe in the basement. The state made precisely this point during closing argument:

He deliberately unloads and hides the rifle. Do you remember all those guns he had around of a higher caliber? In fact, when he's raping her in the bedroom, he's got a handgun right there he could have used. Does he use that? No, he doesn't. He chooses the smallest caliber weapon he has, that will make the least mess and the least noise, and then he hides it in the gun safe, doesn't leave it out like the other guns, and he unloads that magazine.

         The state's closing argument emphasized and was consistent with the fact the gun evidence was both logically and legally relevant to refute Wood's argument he did not deliberately kill Hailey. The dissenting opinion, by relying on fundamentally distinguishable cases, overlooks the fact the logical and legal relevance was amplified by the number of weapons precisely because it showed Wood deliberately chose the .22-caliber rifle even though multiple other weapons were more readily accessible.[6]Further, unlike the cases cited by the dissenting opinion, any alleged prejudicial effect of the gun evidence "was minimized by admitting only photographs of the evidence, not the guns and ammunition themselves." Id. at 896. The circuit court did not abuse its discretion by overruling Wood's objection to evidence of the firearms, ammunition, and related items found throughout his home.[7]

         C. Contents of folder properly admitted

         Wood claims the circuit court abused its discretion by overruling his objection to evidence of the contents of the folder containing photos of four of Wood's female, middle school students and handwritten accounts of fictional sexual encounters with 13-year-old girls. Wood argues the photos and stories were inadmissible evidence of uncharged crimes relevant only for the impermissible purpose of showing his propensity to commit the offense.

         It is unnecessary to address the merits of Wood's argument because a party can open the door to the admission of evidence "with a theory presented in an opening statement, or through cross-examination." State v. Shockley, 410 S.W.3d 179, 194 (Mo. banc 2013) (internal quotation and citation omitted). During opening statements, defense counsel argued the contents of the folder showed Wood acted out of compulsion, not deliberation, because his drug use unleashed suppressed sexual desire for young teenage girls. Wood argues defense counsel strategically chose to discuss the folder because the circuit court overruled his motion in limine to exclude the contents of the folder from evidence. But Wood's counsel recognizes a ruling on a motion in limine is interlocutory and subject to change during trial. See Hancock v. Shook, 100 S.W.3d 786, 802 (Mo. banc 2003). Despite the interlocutory nature of the ruling, counsel chose to address the folder in opening statements, and one consequence of that strategic decision was to open the door to the admission of the evidence at trial. State v. Mickle, 164 S.W.3d 33, 57 (Mo. App. 2005); see also Bucklew v. State, 38 S.W.3d 395, 401 (Mo. banc 2001) (concluding defense counsel opened the door to the admission of evidence the defendant previously committed an assault by mentioning background facts of the assault during opening statements).

         D. Victim impact evidence properly admitted

         Wood claims the circuit court abused its discretion by overruling his objection to the state's penalty phase evidence regarding the effect of Hailey's murder on the Springfield community and allowing the state to question witnesses in a manner intended to elicit emotional responses. Specifically, Wood challenges testimony that more than 10, 000 people attended a vigil for Hailey, Hailey's murder changed Springfield from a town to a city, and "countless parents" indicated they feared for their children's safety.

         "Victim impact evidence is admissible under the United States and Missouri Constitutions." State v. Driskill, 459 S.W.3d 412, 431 (Mo. banc 2015). "The state is permitted to show the victims are individuals whose deaths represent a unique loss to society and to their family and that the victims are not simply faceless strangers." Id. Further, § 565.030.4 provides penalty phase "evidence may include, within the discretion of the court, evidence concerning the murder victim and the impact of the offense upon the family of the victim and others." "Victim impact evidence violates the constitution if it is so unduly prejudicial that it renders the trial fundamentally unfair." Driskill, 459 S.W.3d at 431. (internal quotation omitted).

         The testimony regarding the vigil was relevant to show Hailey's murder resulted in a "unique loss to society" and she was "not simply a faceless stranger[.]" Id. Similarly, the testimony that Hailey's murder changed Springfield from a town to a city and parents now feared for the children's safety was relevant to the impact of the offense on "the family of the victim and others." Section 565.030.4 (emphasis added).[8] There is no specific constitutional limitation on the consideration of community impact, and § 565.030.4 broadly and expressly authorizes evidence of the impact on "others."

         Finally, Wood's argument that the state's questioning was aimed solely at eliciting emotional responses fails because a defendant is not necessarily prejudiced by the fact some jurors or audience members in a murder trial exhibited emotional responses to admissible evidence. The circuit court considered the fact some jurors and an audience member wept, but concluded it was simply an "emotional response to the testimony which again I would put in the category of being natural. Nothing disruptive about it to anyone." In other words, the argument was "emotionally charged" because "the facts of this case are inherently emotionally charged." State v. McFadden, 391 S.W.3d 408, 425 (Mo. banc 2013). The evidence reflected the brutal facts of the case, and jurors and audience members cannot be expected to share Wood's stoicism. The circuit court did not abuse its discretion by overruling Wood's objection to the penalty phase victim impact evidence.

         II. Closing Argument

         Wood claims the circuit court plainly erred during the penalty phase closing argument by permitting the state to argue the jury could speak for Hailey and her family by sentencing Wood to death. Wood timely objected, but did not raise the issue in his motion for a new trial. "An issue is not preserved for appellate review if the issue is not included in the motion for a new trial." State v. Clay, 533 S.W.3d 710, 718 (Mo. banc 2017). This Court's consideration of Wood's claim is discretionary and limited to determining whether a plain error resulted in a "manifest injustice or miscarriage of justice[.]" Rule 30.20.

         The threshold issue in plain error review is whether the circuit court's error was facially "evident, obvious, and clear." State v. Jones, 427 S.W.3d 191, 195 (Mo. banc 2014) (internal quotation omitted). If the appellant establishes a facially "evident, obvious, and clear" error, then this Court will consider whether the error resulted in a manifest injustice or miscarriage of justice. Id. To obtain a new trial on direct appeal based on a claim of plain error, the appellant must show "the error was outcome determinative." State v. Baxter, 204 S.W.3d 650, 652 (Mo. banc 2006) (internal quotation omitted). This Court rarely finds plain error in closing argument, and reversal is warranted only if the defendant shows the improper argument "had a decisive effect on the jury's determination." McFadden, 369 S.W.3d at 747 (internal quotation omitted). "The entire record is considered when interpreting a closing argument, not an isolated segment." Id. (internal quotation omitted).

         Before trial, Wood argued Hailey's mother should be allowed to testify she wanted Wood sentenced to life without parole. The state objected, arguing a family member's opinions regarding sentencing are inadmissible. The circuit sustained the state's objection, and none of Hailey's family members testified regarding their sentencing preferences.

         During the penalty phase closing argument, the state recounted the circumstances of Hailey's death and argued the evidence warranted a death sentence. The state then asserted, "With your verdict, sentencing [Wood] to the ultimate punishment, you speak for Hailey. . . ." Wood objected. The state continued, stating, "You speak for her family . . . ." Wood once again objected. The circuit court overruled Wood's objection. The state continued, arguing Wood "not only brutalized Hailey, but he damaged her family, her brother, her school, her entire community, and changed our community, and your verdict will send a message to this defendant." The state concluded, "For all those harms, this is the case. This is the case that calls for the ultimate punishment, and I ask you to sentence the defendant to death."

         Wood relies on State v. Roberts, 838 S.W.2d 126 (Mo. App. 1992), and Bosse v. Oklahoma, 137 S.Ct. 1 (2016), for the proposition the state's reference to Hailey and her family in closing argument resulted in a manifest injustice. Both cases are distinguishable.

         In Roberts, the state's argument that the jury spoke for the victim's family was improper because there was no evidence the victim had any family members. 838 S.W.2d at 131. In this case, there was ample evidence of the devastating impact Hailey's murder had on her family.

         In Bosse, the defendant objected to the state asking three of the victim's family members to recommend a sentence. 137 S.Ct. at 2. All three testified and recommended death. Id. Under these circumstances, the United States Supreme Court held admitting evidence of the family's sentencing recommendations violated the Eighth Amendment. Id. Bosse is distinguishable because none of Hailey's family members testified regarding their sentencing preference.

         The crux of the state's argument was the brutality of Hailey's murder and its impact on her family and the community required the jury to "send a message" that such actions deserve a death sentence.[9] "This Court has held that 'send a message' statements are permissible." McFadden, 391 S.W.3d at 425. Further, the state did not explicitly argue any of Hailey's family members wanted Wood to receive the death penalty. The state's isolated reference to speaking for Hailey and her family in the context of making a permissible "send a message" argument by imposing a death sentence did not change the outcome of this case. Wood has not shown a manifest injustice justifying the rare step of finding plain error based on statements made in closing argument. State v. Anderson, 79 S.W.3d 420, 439 (Mo. banc 2002) ("Statements made in closing argument will only rarely amount to plain error.").

         III. Juror Properly ...

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