APPEAL FROM MERCER CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE DARREN PECKLER,
JUDGE NO. 16-CR-00077
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
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.
AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
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
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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
facts pertinent to Easterling's claims of error are set
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.
THE TRIAL COURT DID NOT ERR BY ADMITTING THE VIDEOTAPED
STATEMENT EASTERLING MADE TO FAMILY MEMBERS.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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. 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.
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
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 ...