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Easterling v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

August 29, 2019



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Ephraim Woods Helton Stacy Coontz Matthew Robb Walter Helton, Walter & Associates

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Emily Lucas Assistant Attorney General Office of Criminal Appeals Office of the Attorney General



         Trenton Easterling appeals from a judgment of the Mercer Circuit Court convicting him of murder and sentencing him to thirty years in prison. Easterling contends the trial court erred by 1) denying his motion to suppress a videotaped statement; 2) denying his motions for a mistrial and a new trial; and 3) denying his motion to prohibit the introduction of gruesome photographs. The first issue involves portions of a videotaped conversation between Easterling and family members that took place in an interrogation room shortly after he was arrested. The admissibility of this family conversation, taped without the knowledge of the participants, is an issue of first impression in Kentucky. Finding no reversible error, we affirm the trial court's judgment.


         Seventeen-year-old Tristan Cole, having sustained three gunshot wounds, was found dead at a vacant house in the Deep Creek area in Mercer County the evening of April 13, 2016. Investigators quickly determined that Cole was last seen with then sixteen-year-old Easterling.

         Easterling had recently been spending time at the home of Zachary Lay, a senior at the high school Easterling attended. Lay was a known drug dealer who usually kept a handgun in a safe for protection. Interested in helping protect Lay, Easterling obtained an AR-15 rifle from Cole and took it to Lay for potential purchase but Lay decided the gun was too expensive. Easterling then had the idea to steal the gun from Cole, even though Lay did not want him to.

         On April 12, Easterling obtained a ride from Lay's home to a Harrodsburg park. The driver, Jerrard Smith, witnessed Easterling going over to Cole's red truck. Shortly afterward, Travis Stephens observed the red truck in his driveway on Deep Creek. Two other witnesses also saw Easterling in the passenger seat of the truck around the same time.

         Soon afterward, Easterling called and asked Lay to pick him up at Deep Creek Baptist Church. Lay took Smith with him to the church and they found Easterling in the cemetery area of the grounds. When Easterling got into Lay's vehicle, he handed Lay his own handgun from the safe. Easterling told Lay he had smashed a rock in Cole's face and shot him three times. Easterling's hand had blood on it and he showed Lay and Smith that he had taken Cole's wallet. He said he had killed Cole in order to protect Lay.

         The Kentucky State Police, with the assistance of the Mercer County Sheriffs Department, investigated the homicide. On April 14, 2016, a detective and a deputy interviewed Easterling at the sheriffs department[1] with his mother present. Easterling confessed he shot Cole three times, but the confession was later suppressed because the officers did not read Easterling his Miranda rights prior to questioning him. Upon hearing her son's confession, Easterling's mother terminated the interview by asking for an attorney. Easterling's grandfather then joined Easterling and his mother in the interview room and Easterling, in response to a question from his grandfather, again acknowledged that he had killed Cole.

         Easterling was tried for murder and first-degree robbery. After hearing from numerous witnesses, the jury found Easterling guilty of murder but acquitted him of the robbery charge. The trial court sentenced Easterling to thirty years in prison in accordance with the jury's recommendation. This appeal followed.

         Additional facts pertinent to Easterling's claims of error are set forth below.


         Easterling claims the trial court erred by 1) denying his motion in limine to suppress the videotaped statement he made to family members while in the police station interrogation room; 2) denying his motions for a mistrial and a new trial due to comments by the Commonwealth; and 3) denying his motion in limine to prohibit introduction of gruesome photographs from the crime scene and autopsy. For reasons stated below, we find no reversible error.


         Easterling first claims the trial court erred by declining to suppress the videotaped statement he made to his mother and grandfather. As noted earlier, Easterling was interrogated in a room at the Mercer County Sheriffs Department where he confessed to a detective that he had killed Cole. When his mother requested an attorney, the officers left the room, but Easterling and his mother remained there and Easterling's grandfather joined them. During their conversation, Easterling stated in response to one of his grandfather's questions, "He threatened my friend." Unbeknownst to them, the family's conversation was also videotaped. Although the trial court suppressed the interrogation conducted by the detective because Easterling was not read his Miranda rights, the trial court denied suppression of Easterling's incriminating statement made during the conversation with his family members.[2]

         Easterling presents two arguments in support of his claim that the statement was illegally obtained evidence and should have been excluded, one based on Kentucky statutes and the other based on constitutional grounds. First, he asserts Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 526.020, prohibiting eavesdropping, was violated when the police officers recorded his conversation. Second, he claims the Fourth Amendment violation that resulted in the suppression of the detective's interrogation led to his arrest which in turn led directly to the statement in question, rendering it fruit of the poisonous tree. We review these questions of law de novo. Jacobsen v. Commonwealth, 376 S.W.3d 600, 606 (Ky. 2012).

         The trial court denied the suppression motion reasoning: 1) KRS 526.020 implies that a person must have an expectation of privacy, making it inapplicable to events at a police station, and thus posing no obstacle to admitting the conversation in question; and 2) the video was not fruit of the poisonous tree because it was not derivative of the suppressed statements, but was the result of a separate action in which law enforcement was not involved.

         A. KRS 526.020

         Under KRS 526.020, a person is guilty of a Class D felony when he intentionally uses any device to eavesdrop, whether or not he is present at the time. "'Eavesdrop' means to overhear, record, amplify or transmit any part of a wire or oral communication of others without the consent of at least one (1)' party thereto by means of any electronic, mechanical or other device." KRS 526.010.

         Easterling argues that eavesdropping occurred because neither Melissa Easterling, William Lay, nor he knew their conversation was being recorded- the room contained no signs informing occupants that their conversation could be recorded and none of the officers gave them verbal warnings. Furthermore, none of the parties to the conversation signed a waiver reflecting that their conversation in the interview room could be recorded and used against Easterling. Although KRS 526.070 contains two exceptions to the eavesdropping statute, Easterling correctly notes that neither of those exceptions applies here.[3]

         The Commonwealth, on the other hand, contends that KRS 526.020 itself is inapplicable to this case. Citing Beach v. Commonwealth, 927 S.W.2d 826 (Ky. 1996), the Commonwealth maintains that since the exclusionary rule applies to constitutional errors and not statutory violations, even if KRS 526.020 were violated, the video clip would still be admissible because it was not obtained in a manner which violated Easterling's constitutional rights.[4] Beach holds that evidence obtained in violation of a state statute will not be excluded unless it involves a violation of constitutional rights or the legislature mandates exclusion.

         In Beach, the defendant sought suppression of blood test results. Beach argued that the officer, suspecting she was driving under the influence, violated the procedure prescribed by KRS 189A. 103 for impairment testing by taking a blood test instead of first conducting a breathalyzer test. Although this Court concluded that there "is no priority expressed in the statute and no preferred method for determining blood alcohol content," the Court went further and stated:

Under any set of circumstances, the blood test results were admissible. Exclusion of evidence for violating the provisions of the informed consent statute is not required. It has been held in Kentucky and elsewhere that in the absence of an explicit statutory directive, evidence should not be excluded for the violation of provisions of a statute where no constitutional right is involved. See Little v. Commonwealth, Ky., 438 S.W.2d 527 (1968)
[T]he statute contains no explicit or implicit directive from the General Assembly that requires exclusion of evidence obtained. The United States Supreme Court has held that a blood test does not violate the Federal Due Process Clause, the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel or the Fourth Amendment right to unlawful search and seizure. Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, 86 S.Ct. 1826, 16 L.Ed.2d 908 (1966).
Exclusion of evidence for violating the provisions of the implied consent statute is not mandated absent an explicit statutory directive. Evidence should not be excluded for violation of the statute's provisions where ...

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