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Clark v. Commonwealth of Kentucky

Rendered: December 19, 1991.

MICHAEL DEAN CLARK, APPELLANT
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY, APPELLEE



ON APPEAL FROM FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT NO. 87-CR-289 (Hon. George Barker, Judge)

O'daniel, Stephens, Combs, Lambert, Leibson, Wintersheimer, Reynolds, Spain

O'daniel

Opinion OF THE COURT

BY SPECIAL JUSTICE H. EDWARD O'DANIEL, JR.

REVERSING

Appellant Michael Dean Clark was tried and convicted of murder, first degree robbery, fraudulent use of a credit device in the second degree, receiving stolen property, and tampering with physical evidence. The jury sentenced him to death for the murder of Roger Eastham. Clark testified on his own behalf at the trial and admitted that he killed Eastham by shooting him in the head with a handgun on September 5, 1986.

Evidence at the trial showed that Clark wrapped the body, packed it in a chest freezer, and stored the freezer in a commercial storage unit five days after Eastham's death. He left Kentucky several days later with his wife and lived in Ohio and Michigan until April, 1987, when he was arrested in Michigan and charged with the murder. He used his brother's name and social security number while in Ohio and Michigan. Testimony established that Eastham carried large amounts of cash with him and had over thirty credit cards. Clark used Eastham's credit cards to make purchases totalling $5,829.04 after Eastham's death. Clark, who had been unemployed and had sought to borrow money from friends, spent large amounts of cash between the time of Eastham's death and Clark's arrest.

Police discovered Eastham's body in the freezer at the storage unit on April 8, 1987. Color slides of Eastham's head and face were made after the body was found. Additionally, a videotape was made during removal of Eastham's body from the freezer.

Clark raises 36 issues in his appeal, all of which we have reviewed. The conviction is reversed on numerous errors and remanded for a new trial. While this opinion will not address the merits of all alleged errors, those which necessitate reversal or which may recur in a second trial will be discussed.

I. GRUESOME COLOR SLIDES AND A VIDEOTAPE WERE NOT NECESSARY TO DEPICT THE VICTIM'S INJURIES BUT WERE INFLAMMATORY AND SERVED TO AROUSE PASSION.

Three color slides were introduced by the Commonwealth at the trial and projected on a screen while a witness testified approximately eight minutes. The first slide, depicting the victim's decomposing face, was shown to describe a bullet wound while the Commonwealth witness testified that no gun powder residue was present and that the wound caused internal damage to the victim's skull not visible on the slide. The second slide, portraying the victim's head with scalp and skull removed, was introduced to show where the bullets lodged. The third slide, showing the top of the head with scalp removed and a steel rod inserted through the head, illustrated the path of the bullet. An x-ray was also introduced to show the trajectory and where the bullet lodged.

The videotape made while Eastham's body was being removed from the freezer was shown to the jury while another Commonwealth witness testified. The video shows the victim's body wrapped in blankets with decompositional fluid oozing from the stiff mass of blankets. The body is shown being pulled out of the freezer, placed on a stretcher and wrapped in black plastic. More red fluid in the bottom of the freezer is shown as the camera pans slowly back and forth.

The Commonwealth contends the slides were relevant to illustrate the bullet wound, show where the bullets lodged and depict the path of the bullets. The general rule is that relevant pictures are not rendered inadmissible simply because they are gruesome and the crime is heinous. Brown v. Commonwealth, Ky., 558 S.W.2d 599 (1977). This general rule loses considerable force when the condition of the body has been materially altered by mutilation, autopsy, decomposition or other extraneous causes, not related to commission of the crime, so that the pictures tend to arouse passion and appall the viewer. The same proof illustrated by the slides was amply available through x-rays and the testimony of the pathologist who examined the body. Imprinting a lasting inflammatory image in the minds of the jurors far outweighs any relevant value the slides may have. Holland v. Commonwealth, Ky., 703 S.W.2d 876 (1986).

The Commonwealth introduced the video to depict a part of the crime scene and as evidence of Clark's attempt to conceal the crime. The victim's body was not placed in the freezer until five days after the crime and it was not found until seven months later. Discovering and removing the body had no relevance to the crime scene, but served only to arouse passion and shock at the sight of a gory event. Poe v. Commonwealth, Ky. 301 S.W.2d 900 (1957).

II. EVIDENCE OF PRIOR ACTS, UNRELATED TO THE CRIME, OF UNCHARGED CRIMINAL OR VIOLENT ACTIVITY WAS PREJUDICIAL.

Testimony of three acts was introduced at the trial characterizing Clark as a violent person. First, he bragged the night of Eastham's death about a street fight in which Clark was involved at a traffic light several days earlier. Second, vague threats that Clark may have made against the life of his former employer were elicited. Third, testimony was offered that Clark may have struck his wife the day of Eastham's death. No criminal charges for any of the three acts had been brought against Clark.

The general rule is that evidence of crimes committed "other than the one that is the subject of a charge is not admissible to prove that an accused is a person of criminal disposition." Lawson, The Kentucky Evidence Law Handbook, 2d ed., Sec. 2.20(A) (1984). Evidence of other criminal or wrongful acts may be introduced as an exception to the rule to show proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident. Federal Rules of Evidence, Rule 404(b). To be admissible under any of the exceptions, the other criminal or wrongful acts must be (1) relevant for some purpose other than to prove criminal predisposition, (2) sufficiently probative to warrant introduction, and (3) the probative value of the evidence outweighs its potential for prejudice to the accused. Drumm v. Commonwealth, Ky. 783 S.W.2d 380 (1990).

The Commonwealth argues that the three acts were inextricably intertwined with the series of events surrounding Eastham's death and Clark's hiding of the body in a freezer. The probative value of the collateral criminal or wrongful acts must be weighed against their inflammatory effect. The three acts in this case had little or no bearing on the charges for which Clark was being tried, yet they presented him as a violent person with a criminal disposition. Introduction of the acts was more prejudicial than probative. Wonn v. Commonwealth, Ky.App., 606 S.W.2d 169, 171 (1980).

III. RESPONSIBILITY OF THE JURY FOR IMPOSING DEATH SENTENCE MAY NOT BE MINIMIZED BY STATEMENT IMPLYING THE JURY VERDICT OF DEATH IS MANDATORY OR CAN BE CHANGED.

The prosecutor pursued a course tending to create an impression with the jury that they do not bear the responsibility of imposing the death sentence. In opening statement, the prosecutor told the jury that his office infrequently seeks the death penalty and that very few murder cases qualify for capital punishment. In closing argument, he told the jury "this is an extraordinary case as envisioned by our Legislature" for the death penalty. He attributed to Justice Potter Stewart a comment that "the seeds of anarchy" are sown unless capital punishment is meted in deserving cases. He advised the jury to recommend the death sentence to the trial judge, using the term "recommend" 25 times in opening and closing during the sentencing phase to reinforce the notion that the final decision rests with the trial judge.

It is reversible error to minimize the jury's sense of responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the death sentence. Ward v. Commonwealth, Ky., 695 S.W.2d 404 (1985). Jurors are confronted with a truly awesome responsibility when decreeing death for a fellow human. The decision to execute a person is made by the jury, not by the prosecutor's office, not by the Legislature, not by the trial judge, not by the Supreme Court. A juror led to believe others have ultimate responsibility for decreeing death may be willing to vote with the majority in the jury room, believing that higher legal authorities control the decision.

Reasons for voiding a death sentence when the vote of the jury has been minimized by suggestions that responsibility rests elsewhere are delineated in Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633, 86 L. Ed. 2d 231 (1985):

a) The "delegation" of sentencing responsibility suggested by the prosecutor would not simply postpone petitioner's right to a fair determination of the appropriateness of death. It would deprive him of that right, for an appellate court, unlike the sentencing jury, is ill-suited to ...


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