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Rigdon v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

April 27, 2017



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Julia Karol Pearson Department of Public Advocacy.

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Leilani K. M. Martin Assistant Attorney General.



         A jury in Warren County[1] convicted Robert Rigdon of murder. Consistent with the jury's sentencing recommendations, the trial court fixed his sentence at confinement for thirty-eight years.

         Rigdon now appeals as a matter of right, Kentucky Constitution § 110(2)(b), arguing that the trial court erred by: (1) ordering increased security during trial; (2) admitting testimony regarding the culture of the Iron Horsemen; (3) permitting alleged-ex parte communication between the Commonwealth and the trial court; and (4) overruling Rigdon's motions for a mistrial. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the night of September 26, 2012, Gleason Pyles was working at the Tarter Gate Company in Dunnville, Kentucky. Pyles and Sam Trulock were the only employees working that night, and the two spoke briefly before parting ways. Shortly thereafter, Trulock was filling up paint in a location away from Pyles when he heard gunshots. Trulock returned to where he had previously spoken with Pyles and found Pyles's body lying on the ground, with gunshot-related injuries to his head. Pyles suffered six gunshot wounds to his head and torso. DNA evidence found on cigarettes at the scene matched Rigdon's DNA.

         Pyles had been a member of the Iron Horsemen motorcycle club and had recently left the group on bad terms with the local chapter's president, David Salyers.[2] There was testimony that Pyles was also indebted to Salyers for a motorcycle Salyers loaned him. Rigdon had just recently become a "fully-patched" member of the Iron Horsemen.

         A Warren County jury convicted Rigdon of murder, and the trial court sentenced him to the recommended thirty-eight years' imprisonment. This appeal followed. We set forth additional facts as necessary below.


         Because the issues presented require us to apply different standards of review, we set forth the appropriate standard as necessary when addressing each issue.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The trial court did not err in permitting extra security in the courtroom.

         Prior to the start of Rigdon's trial, the trial court was contacted by the Kentucky State Police (KSP). The KSP recommended that it provide additional security for Rigdon's trial based on unidentified threats it had received, and the trial court ultimately agreed to the KSP providing that security.

         A trial court's security measures are reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Hill v. Commonwealth, 125 S.W.3d 221, 236 (Ky. 2004). An abuse of discretion exists where the trial court's decision was arbitrary, unreasonable, unfair, or unsupported by sound legal principles. Commonwealth v. English, 993 S.W.3d 941, 945 (Ky. 1999).

         Rigdon objected to what he contended was an "unusual level of police presence in and around the courthouse." The trial court overruled that objection, citing numerous factors on which it based its decision: the recommendation by the KSP to have additional security for the trial; the fact that a person with a knife had entered the courtroom during the trial of Rigdon's accomplice; and the fact that the house of a key witness against Rigdon had been burned down just prior to trial, requiring that witness's relocation and 24-hour protection.

         The court ordered that the number of uniformed officers in the courtroom would be limited to four, and that every person, upon entering the courtroom, would be subject to having their person and property searched and scanned with a metal detector. At trial, only one uniformed officer and a bailiff were present inside the courtroom and, although there were additional KSP officers in the courtroom, they wore normal court attire that varied from officer to officer. Based on the information the trial court had before it, we discern no abuse of discretion.

         During trial, Rigdon requested that the trial judge recuse herself. His motion for recusal was based on "numerous uniformed KSP officers" in the parking lots, the rotunda of the courthouse, and the hallway leading to the courthouse elevators; metal detectors in the courthouse rotunda and outside the courtroom doors; four to five Administrative Office of Courts personnel "wanding" each person as they entered the courtroom; bomb-sniffing K9 units inspecting the perimeter of the courthouse; five to six suited KSP Special Response Team members in the courtroom; and the "use of aircraft" to transport Rigdon from Fayette County to Warren County. Defense counsel asserted that,

[i]t has become increasingly clear to defense counsel that their client cannot and will not receive a fair and impartial trial in this case . . . due to the massive and ridiculous security measures employed in this case. Judge Vance has become paranoid regarding the dangerousness of this case, simply because it involves the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club ....
Clearly Judge Vance has been influenced by the fact that this case involves . . . members of the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club. She has clearly become frightened of it and this unsupported fear has influenced her ability to handle this case in a fair and impartial manner and by her irrational belief that the jury has not been tainted by the extreme surety [sic] measures. Counsel believes that Judge Vance lacks the experience or desire to ensure that the Defendant [ ] receive a fair and impartial trial given his affiliation with the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club and must now recuse herself. To do otherwise would irreparably violate the Constitutional rights of the Defendant herein.

         Rigdon continues this same argument on appeal, contending that he was denied his right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence under the United ...

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