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Bennett v. Ballard

Supreme Court of West Virginia

September 1, 2017

Richard Scott Bennett, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
David Ballard, Warden, Mount Olive Correctional Complex, Respondent Below, Respondent

         Monroe County 11-C-26


         Petitioner Richard Scott Bennett, by counsel Scott E. Johnson, appeals the May 5, 2016, order of the Circuit Court of Monroe County that denied his petition for post-conviction habeas corpus relief. Respondent David Ballard, Warden, Mount Olive Correctional Complex, by counsel Gordon E. Mowen, II, filed a response in support of the habeas court's order. Petitioner filed a reply.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         In October of 2007, Edwina I.[1] (the "victim") died on the floor of her trailer in Monroe County. The cause of death was blunt and sharp force trauma to the victim's head caused when the victim landed face first onto the edge of a metal bedframe. The trauma caused the victim's brain to bleed and swell over a period of about two days until her death. Present at the scene were petitioner, who lived with the victim, and the victim's three children: an eleven-year-old daughter (the "older daughter"), a nine-year-old daughter (the "younger daughter"), and a four-year-old son.

         In 2008, a grand jury indicted petitioner for the murder of the victim. Thereafter, the trial court appointed Richard Gunnoe as petitioner's first trial counsel. A trial date was set for August of 2008. However, in July of 2008, Mr. Gunnoe filed a motion to withdraw based on a conflict of interest in that he had previously represented Elisha F. who was slated to testify for the State at petitioner's trial. Thereafter, the circuit appointed Geoffrey Wilcher and Jeffrey Rodgers to represent petitioner. Petitioner's four-day trial commenced on July 14, 2009. The State called more than twenty witnesses during its case-in-chief; petitioner's counsel cross-examined all but three of these witnesses. The State's witnesses included the following:

         Cassandra Owens, a contract social worker for the Bureau of Child Protective Services ("CPS"), testified that she knew the victim because she had worked with her on parenting skills. Ms. Owens testified that, four months prior to the victim's death, the victim had called her from a neighbor's house. During the call, the victim claimed that she was afraid of petitioner because he had a plan to kill her. However, when Ms. Owens called the victim the next day, the victim claimed she had been hallucinating on diet pills when she said petitioner had a plan to kill her. Ms. Owens testified that, during this call, she heard petitioner in the background coaching the victim on what to say.

         Onita Meadows testified that she had known petitioner for twelve years and had worked with him. Ms. Meadows testified that she stopped by petitioner's trailer one day where she met the victim who had a black eye. Ms. Meadows testified that the victim said the black eye occurred when she (the victim) bumped heads with petitioner, but Ms. Meadows believed the victim was lying to protect petitioner.

         Elisha F. testified that she met the victim at the victim's trailer. The victim would not look her in the eye. The victim's throat was purple, the whites of her eyes were "nothing but blood, " and she had bruises all over her face and body. On a second trip to the trailer, Elisha F. noticed that petitioner, his sister, the sister's boyfriend, and the victim's younger daughter were "being mean" to the victim. When Elisha F. asked petitioner why they were being mean to the victim, petitioner told her that the victim and the children's biological father had sexually abused the victim's children. Petitioner then had the victim's children explain in detail what the victim and their biological father had done to them. Elisha F. asked petitioner why the victim was still around the children if the victim had done such things. Petitioner replied that the victim, whom he described as a "fat ass" and a "whore, " "ain't going to be here long"; that he was going to kill the victim for what she had done to her children; and that he intended to take the victim's body and "throw her in one of them caves." Elisha F. testified that petitioner threatened to kill the victim at least ten times during this conversation and appeared very serious when he spoke. Elisha F. was so upset by what she heard, she called her own CPS caseworker, Jennifer Ratliff, to report petitioner's threats.

         CPS caseworker Jennifer Ratliff testified that she received a call from Elisha F. regarding petitioner's threats and the children's claims of abuse. Ms. Ratliff testified that Elisha F.'s claims were very vague and that Elisha F. had lied to CPS in the past; therefore, no investigation ensured.

         The victim's younger daughter, who was then eleven years old, testified as follows: At petitioner's trailer, she slept alone with petitioner in the largest bedroom. She witnessed petitioner hit and kick the victim all over her body many times; hit the victim with a metal pole; put a rope around the victim's neck and drag her around by the rope with his car; and push the victim into a fire. Petitioner hit her and her siblings. She tried to call the police, but petitioner took the phone out of her hands. Petitioner made her hit the victim on several occasions. On the night the victim was mortally wounded, she saw petitioner push the victim down the trailer's steps. The victim landed on some bedsprings and cut her head. As a result, the victim was bleeding and crying. The victim crawled up the steps and into her bedroom. She went to the victim's room and observed a "big scar" down the victim's face. The victim said, "Help me." The victim could only crawl and mumble the next day. The victim bled a lot and blood was "everywhere." Petitioner burned everything with blood on it. The morning after the victim died, she and her siblings accompanied petitioner to petitioner's sister's house. Petitioner told his sister he had killed the victim and begged his sister not to call the police. Petitioner left his sister's home and went to buy lime. Petitioner told the sales person that the lime was for plants. Petitioner was going to chop up the victim's body and place it in the sewer, but decided to place lime on the victim's body instead. The day after the victim died, she (the younger daughter) talked to "Monica" (a forensic investigator). She told the forensic investigator that the victim was with the children's biological father on the night the victim was injured.

         On cross-examination, Defense Counsel Wilcher, asked the younger daughter, "Do you remember telling [the forensic investigator] you missed [petitioner]?" The younger daughter replied, "Yes, 'cause we didn't know what to do 'cause we was brainwashed." The younger daughter further testified that "brainwashed" meant, "when someone else, like, confuses your mind and get into your mind and changes-twists up different things in your mind to believe them."

         The victim's older daughter, who was then thirteen years old, testified as follows: When she was ten-years-old, she lived with the victim and her biological father. Her parents hired her out to men for money. The men would touch her and make her touch them. Her father sexually abused her and stuck a carrot "up her little brother's butt." When she, her siblings, and the victim moved into petitioner's trailer, her biological father put the victim's head through a glass window and went to jail as a result. In the trailer, petitioner slept in the largest bedroom with her younger sister. Petitioner frequently hit and kicked the victim, hit the victim with a hammer, dragged the victim around with a rope around her neck, and pushed her into a fire. Petitioner forced the victim to put their dog's "privates into her mouth." Petitioner hit her (the older daughter) because he did not want her to tell any of the things that happened at the trailer. Petitioner forced her to hit the victim and to stab the victim with a knife. Petitioner also made her younger sister and her little brother hit the victim.

         The older daughter also testified that on the night the victim hit her head, petitioner kicked the victim down the trailer steps. The victim fell through the bannister and her head landed on a "pointy-edge hooked to the bed frame." The hook gauged into the victim's face, around her eye area. The victim crawled into the house dripping blood. She and her younger sister tried to bandage the wound that was "massively bleeding." Awhile later, petitioner carried the victim to a vacant trailer that was adjacent to his trailer. There, petitioner put his knee on the victim's head and "blood flew everywhere." Petitioner then painted the floor with red and silver spray paint. Petitioner left the victim in the vacant trailer until the next day, when he returned the victim to his trailer. At that time, the victim "wasn't acting right, " "couldn't talk right, " and "couldn't walk." The victim was still alive that night, but died in "a day or two." After the victim died, she, petitioner, and her sister cleaned up all the blood and burned everything they could not clean. Petitioner told her he was going to put lime on the victim's body. Petitioner and the three children went to petitioner's sister's house where petitioner told his sister and her boyfriend what had happened, and asked them not to call the police. Thereafter, petitioner and the children purchased lime and returned to the trailer. The police came to the trailer soon thereafter.

         On cross-examination, the older daughter admitted she told the forensic investigator that the victim had been with the children's biological father on the night the victim was injured. She also testified that petitioner "brainwashed" her to say that and that the story about her biological father was not true.

         Medical examiner and forensic pathologist Nabila Haikal, M.D., testified as follows: The victim's head injury was likely fatal, but the open wounds on the victim's head could have contributed to her death. The victim had a black eye and other face and neck injuries. There were brown and yellowing bruises on the victim's face; injuries to her chest and abdomen; bruising and scrapes on her back; bruising on her buttock; seven fractured ribs; defensive wounds on the back of her forearms and the palms of her hands; and wounds consistent with stabbing.

         Joanna Scott, petitioner's sister testified as follows: Petitioner and the victim's children came to her trailer while she and her then-boyfriend, Dale Bragg, were at home. Petitioner was shaking and crying and admitted he beat the victim to death. Petitioner asked both she and Mr. Bragg to help him move the victim's body. Petitioner said he intended to take the body behind the couple's trailer and cover it with lime. She made up various excuses as to why she could not help petitioner move the body. Petitioner called a hardware store from Ms. Scott's home to inquire about purchasing lime. As soon as petitioner left, she and Mr. Bragg went to a second location and called the police. She also testified that she had seen (1) petitioner hit the victim and the victim's daughters; (2) bruises and a black eye on the victim; and (3) petitioner be mean to the victim.

         Dale Bragg, petitioner's sister's boyfriend, confirmed petitioner's sister's testimony.

         Cpl. Scott Keaton testified that, in response to petitioner's sister's call to the police, he and other officers responded to petitioner's trailer. When petitioner saw the police cruisers, he jumped in his car and drove away. The officers pursued petitioner for about five miles. Thereafter, petitioner's car accelerated, left the road, and struck a tree. The police captured petitioner and searched his car where they found bags of lime.

         Bridgett Magnetti, the victim's daughters' treating psychologist, testified at length about petitioner's sexual abuse of the younger daughter. Ms. Magnetti also testified that both daughters suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Child Sexual-Abuse Accommodation Syndrome ("CSAAS"). Ms. Magnetti opined that the CSAAS explained why the daughters initially ...

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