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June 29, 2010 Session


Criminal Court for Knox County

No. 72245 Mary Beth Leibowitz, Judge

No. E2008-02146-CCA-R3-PD – Filed April 29, 2011

The Petitioner, Dennis Wade Suttles, appeals from the judgment of the Knox County Criminal Court denying his petition for post-conviction relief. A Knox County Criminal Court jury convicted the Petitioner of premeditated first degree murder and sentenced him to death. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the Petitioner’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal. State v. Suttles, 30 S.W.3d 252 (Tenn.), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 967 (2000).

On appeal, the Petitioner challenges the effectiveness of his counsel’s representation before trial, during trial, and on direct appeal. The Petitioner also challenges the constitutionality of the death penalty. This court holds that the trial court did not err in finding that the Petitioner received the effective assistance of counsel at all stages of the case and that the Petitioner’s challenges against the death penalty are without merit. The judgment of the trial court denying post-conviction relief is affirmed.



On March 13, 1996, the Petitioner killed his estranged girlfriend, Gail Rhodes, in the presence of her daughter and her daughter’s friend in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee. In November 1997, the Petitioner was convicted of premeditated first degree murder and sentenced to death. The jury found two aggravating circumstances in support of the death penalty: (1) the Petitioner was previously convicted of prior violent felonies and (2) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel. See T.C.A. § 39-13- 204(i)(2) and (5) (Supp. 1996) (amended 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2008, 2009, 2010).  The facts of the case were summarized by our supreme court in its opinion on direct appeal:

The proof introduced at the guilt phase of the trial showed that the defendant and the victim met and began dating in April of 1995. The relationship progressed, and in October 1995 the defendant asked the victim to marry him. The victim’s divorce was not final at that time, so the engagement was delayed. In December 1995, the defendant purchased a house, and the defendant, the victim, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Christina, moved into the house together. At Christmas, the defendant gave the victim an engagement ring.

However, in February 1996, the victim moved out of the defendant’s house after the two argued. Around the time of this argument, the victim’s co-workers had noticed deep bruises on the victim’s neck that looked like fingerprints. In his testimony, the defendant admitted that during the argument he tried to take the engagement ring from the victim’s finger and broke the victim’s necklace.

The defendant was distraught at the breakup of the relationship. He repeatedly sought to convince the victim to return to him. He called her repeatedly at work, sometimes waited for her at work, left cards on the windshield of her car, and attempted to speak with her whenever he saw her in public.  The victim appeared afraid of the defendant and tried to avoid him. She did not speak with him on the telephone when he called, and the victim’s co-workers escorted her to her vehicle in the evening. In addition, the victim kept secret the location of her new residence and carried important personal papers, such as a deed to her burial plot, in her purse so that the papers could be easily located should something happen to her.

The victim knew that in 1986, the defendant had pled guilty to one count of felonious assault with bodily injury and three counts of assault with intent to commit first degree murder. She also knew that these convictions arose out of an incident where the defendant attempted to force his estranged former wife and his three-year-old son to return home with him…

On March 13, 1996, about one month after the break-up, the defendant, who was a foreman for a roofing company, worked his regular job.  His co-workers testified that he was not angry or upset that day, did not make threatening remarks about the victim, and seemed his usual self. As he was driving home from work, he saw the victim drive by in her car with her daughter and her daughter’s friend, Arlisa Tipton, but he lost her car when she drove into a residential neighborhood. The defendant then drove to his mother’s house, where he was invited to eat supper. He accepted the invitation but decided that he would go to his own home first and shower and change clothes before supper. The defendant left his mother’s home around 5:30 p.m., and he did not appear angry or upset at the time he left, nor did he say anything about the victim. The defendant’s step-father operated a small engine repair shop and had repaired the motor in a piece of equipment, a leaf blower, that the defendant used on his roofing jobs. The defendant loaded the leaf blower in his car when he left his mother’s home and said that he intended to use it on his roofing job the next day.

In the meantime, the victim, who had been aware that the defendant was following her and had deliberately eluded him, drove to a nearby Taco Bell restaurant to eat with Christina and Arlisa. According to Christina, the victim parked her car in the back of the restaurant so the defendant would not see the car if he drove past the front of the restaurant on Chapman Highway.  Unfortunately, on the way to his home, the defendant stopped at Wal-Mart on Chapman Highway which is located in the same shopping mall area as the Taco Bell where the victim was eating with Christina and Arlisa. The defendant intended to purchase some roofing supplies. The defendant was unable to find the products he needed, so he left Wal-Mart. As he was driving away from Wal-Mart toward Chapman Highway, he drove past the back of the Taco Bell and pulled into the restaurant when he noticed the victim’s car. Parking his automobile beside the victim’s vehicle, the defendant went inside the restaurant and attempted to speak with the victim.

The two argued, and the defendant followed the victim and the girls outside. The argument continued as the victim and the defendant stood beside the victim’s automobile. Finally, the defendant grabbed the victim to prevent her from getting into her car.

Placing one arm around the victim’s neck, the defendant held a lock blade pocket knife to her throat. When Christina approached, the defendant said, “Get back or I’ll kill her.” Christina stepped back, and the victim told the defendant to put the knife away and she would go with him. The defendant put the knife in his pocket, apologized, and released the victim.

When the victim fled toward the restaurant, the defendant followed, tackled the victim, pulled out his knife, slashed her throat and stabbed her multiple times. Christina, who witnessed  the attack on her mother, testified:

He cut her on her neck. He slit her neck all to pieces. And he stabbed her in the face and cut her lip and he cut her hair and he cut her body; he stabbed her. And I saw him flip her over and he stabbed her in the back. I was about three feet back because she kept telling me to get back and she kept screaming.  When he was finished, the defendant arose, wiped off his knife, returned it to his pocket, nonchalantly got into his car, and drove away. Christina testified that the defendant smiled at her as he drove by.

Amanda Reagan, an employee of Taco Bell, and Shawn Patrick Kane, a man who had just left the grocery store across the parking lot from Taco Bell, also witnessed the stabbing.  According to these witnesses, after stabbing the victim, the defendant nonchalantly got into his car and drove away as if nothing of any great import had occurred. Both of these witnesses noticed the defendant’s license plate number and gave it to police.

Dr. Matthews opined that at the time of the homicide the defendant was in a state of heightened emotional arousal, that he put the knife to the victim’s throat to convince her to come back to him, and that he released her when she reassured him.  Accepting the defendant’s version of the offense, Dr. Matthews said that the victim’s threat to have the defendant killed was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Dr. Matthews opined that the killing was not premeditated and was instead “an impulsive and explosive act of violence” caused by “basic, primitive emotions of anger and fear and hurt, all mixed together.”

…the jury found the defendant guilty of premeditated first degree murder. At the sentencing phase, the State relied upon the proof presented at the guilt phase, and also offered into evidence the indictments and judgments from the defendant’s four previous convictions for assault…

The defendant presented records from his earlier imprisonment in the Department of Correction to show that he had been a model inmate. For example, these records showed that at the time of his parole he received recommendations from twenty-nine staff members at the correctional center and that the warden and associate warden recommended parole. He worked during his entire imprisonment, was not violent and reached “trusty” status. During his incarceration, the defendant received two write-ups: one for having contraband (tools) in his cell and the other for violating policy and procedures by possessing a fan from which the name and inmate number had been scrubbed.

The defendant’s mother, Lois Evelyn Napier, testified that… the defendant was not involved in any trouble as a child.  During his imprisonment, Mrs. Napier visited her son weekly. After his release on parole parole, he lived with his mother and her husband and caused no trouble…

Brandt Davis and Leslie M. Jeffress were appointed to represent the Petitioner at trial…

Mr. Jeffress testified that the Petitioner was prescribed Paxil, Tranzene, and Pepcid some time before the murder. Counsel asked their expert, Dr. Ben Bursten, if those drugs could have affected the Petitioner’s behavior or conduct at the time of the crime, but he assured them otherwise.  He said that the Petitioner complained of experiencing headaches while driving around after committing the crime and that the Petitioner did not believe the victim was dead, even after he was shown autopsy photographs. The Petitioner told Jeffress he would kill himself if he thought she were dead.