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State v. Fielder

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 11, 2018

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
v.
Stephen R. Fielder, Defendant Below, Petitioner

          Berkeley County 07-F-58

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Stephen R. Fielder, by counsel B. Craig Manford, appeals his conviction in the Circuit Court of Berkeley County for murder in the first degree. Respondent State of West Virginia, by counsel Robert L. Hogan, filed a response.

         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.

         On August 20, 2006, two red American Tourister suitcases were found partially submerged in Back Creek in Berkeley County. The larger of the two suitcases was riddled with puncture holes and contained a dismembered human torso. The smaller suitcase contained a human head and arms, along with two "Gold's Gym" free weights. Three weeks later, a third American Tourister suitcase was discovered in Back Creek; it also contained free weights, as well as human legs and feet. The police photographed the suitcases and their contents. An autopsy conducted by the State Medical Examiner's office revealed that all of the body parts belonged to the same person. The police traced the American Tourister luggage to Walmart, which exclusively sold that particular type of luggage. Walmart also sold the Gold's Gym free weights found in two of the suitcases. The police's search of receipts from Walmart revealed only one recent purchase of both the American Tourister luggage and the Gold's Gym free weights; that purchase was made on August 14, 2006. The police obtained the video footage of the purchase and recognized the purchaser as petitioner, a local attorney.

         The police learned that petitioner had three ex-wives. They located the first and third ex-wives, but could not locate the second ex-wife, Debra Fielder. Petitioner married Debra Fielder ("Ms. Fielder") in 1993, but the couple divorced in 2002. Following the divorce, Ms. Fielder led a transient lifestyle, but would turn up at petitioner's home from time to time. The police obtained dental records for Ms. Fielder that were a match for the teeth in the severed head.

         On September 7, 2006, the police questioned petitioner about Ms. Fielder; petitioner told police that she had been at his home that summer, but had left and gone to North Carolina. The police covertly recorded the interview. Immediately thereafter, the police executed a search warrant on petitioner's home. There, they found a small amount of blood splatter in the basement that was later identified as belonging to Ms. Fielder. The police also found petitioner's pet prairie dog in a cage. Thereafter, petitioner was indicted for the first-degree murder of Ms. Fielder (hereinafter, the "victim"). It was later determined that the victim died sometime on or around August 11, 2006.

         Pretrial, petitioner challenged the admission of the photographs of the suitcases and their contents, and those taken during autopsy on the ground that they were "gruesome." Petitioner offered to stipulate at trial that the remains were those of the victim. Further, petitioner's counsel pledged he would not cross-examine the State's witnesses on the identification of the remains. The State countered that it was entitled to show how the victim's body parts were discovered and how they appeared at that time. The circuit court found that the State intended to use the photographs for purposes of identification and for the manner of death and, therefore, denied petitioner's motion in limine. The circuit court also found that "gruesomeness is not what it used to be. Public people are just more inured to things, movies and otherwise, more cynical and more or less shocked." Finally, the State agreed not to elicit the fact that petitioner had practiced law for a three-year period without a law license. Specifically, the State agreed that the "door would not be opened" absent a diminished capacity defense.[1]

         At petitioner's trial, the State called nineteen witnesses, including the following:

         Dr. Nabila Haikal, the First Deputy Chief Medical Examiner at the West Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, testified that, to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, the cause of the victim's death was from assaultive injuries, including sharp and blunt force trauma; and the manner of death was homicide. During the victim's autopsy, Dr. Haikal found stab wounds, cuts, and incised wounds, as well as signs of blunt force trauma, including bruising on the victim's forehead and thighs, and multiple broken ribs. Dr. Haikal noted that the anterior of the victim's neck was missing and, therefore, she was unable to determine if the victim had been strangled. Dr. Haikal admitted she had difficulty determining which of the stab wounds in the victim's torso were inflicted pre-mortem and which were inflicted post-mortem when petitioner stabbed the suitcase that contained the torso in an apparent effort to get the suitcase to sink. Dr. Haikal testified that pre-mortem stab wounds are identified by the presence of blood in tissues along the track of the wound; however, when a body is immersed in water for a significant period, as occurred here, blood may leach out making it difficult to make a definitive determination as to whether a wound was inflicted pre- or post-mortem. Dr. Haikal emphasized that many of the stab wounds appeared to have been made post-mortem, but at least two stab wounds were made "very clearly before death, " and several others were probably pre-mortem. Dr. Haikal stated that one of two clearly pre-mortem stab wounds went into the victim's lung; the other went into her abdomen. The first of these two pre-mortem stab wounds was five and a half inches deep and on the front of the torso; the second was seven inches deep and on the back of the torso. Dr. Haikal further testified that it would have been difficult to match the wounds in the victim's torso to the puncture holes on the suitcase that contained the torso, but her recollection was that there were fewer stab holes in the suitcase than there were stab wounds on the victim's torso. Finally, Dr. Haikal testified that an animal likely caused the postmortem injury found on the victim's left ear.

         On cross-examination, Dr. Haikal admitted that some of the bruising on the victim's body could be consistent with accidental injury, and that she did not list the number of stab wounds in the suitcase in her report. Petitioner's counsel then asked, "Is it still your opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that [one of the wounds] was pre-mortem?" Dr. Haikal replied "more likely pre-mortem than post-mortem."

         John Carson, D.D.S., West Virginia's Chief Dental Examiner, testified that he identified the victim through her dental records. He also testified that an injury found on the victim's left ear was, more likely than not, caused by petitioner's prairie dog.[2]

         Petitioner's first ex-wife testified that her marriage with petitioner as "fairly rocky --pretty rough times." She claimed that, circa 1974, petitioner slapped her and knocked her to the ground and that he attempted to punch her. She also said that petitioner grabbed her hand or arm and squeezed it very hard, leaving a bruise. Petitioner's third ex-wife testified that she was married to petitioner from 2003 to 2006 and that petitioner was never threatening or violent towards her. She also testified that petitioner suffered two strokes in 2003, which left him with physical limitations and problems with mental processing.

         Linda Johnson testified that she met petitioner in 1999 and assisted him with various business affairs. She also testified that petitioner wrote her a letter in January of 2007, following his incarceration on the first-degree murder charge. In petitioner's letter, which the State entered into evidence at trial, he admitted to striking the victim and that she "was killed in the act of stealing from [petitioner], " as follows:

[The victim] and at least [her boyfriend] but others too decided to put me out of the house with a temporary family protective order, and then in the week to ten days it would take to have a hearing for me to get back into the house, clean me out and take everything of value.
[The victim's] goal was to provoke an argument and then have [her boyfriend] and others perhaps put me out of the house while police were called and evidence of abuse staged. Meth affects your judgment and gives you a continuing sense of power and control or so I am told.
I do not think that [the victim] thought for an instant that I would resist in anyway, certainly she never imagined that I would actually strike her. In all of the troubles we had over the years I had always ...

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