Tennessee Supreme Court Affirms Death Sentence for Premeditated Murder Conviction

May 1, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed James Hawkins’s premeditated murder conviction and sentence of death for the 2008 murder of Charlene Gaither, Mr. Hawkins’s long-term girlfriend and the mother of his three children.

In February 2008, Mr. Hawkins stabbed Ms. Gaither, in the presence of their twelve-year daughter, in their Memphis apartment. Mr. Hawkins made his daughter help him hide her mother’s body in a freezer and clean the murder scene, threatening to kill her if she refused.  He purchased a power saw later that day, forced his daughter to help him move her mother’s body to a bathtub in the apartment, and used the saw to remove Ms. Gaither’s head, hands, and feet.  Mr. Hawkins instructed his daughter to help him return the body to the freezer.  Later that night, he and his daughter placed Ms. Gaither’s body in her vehicle, drove it to Mississippi, threw her body off a bridge, and disposed of her head, hands, and feet along the route they drove.  About three days after the murder, Mr. Hawkins called the police and falsely reported Ms. Gaither as missing.  The next day, highway workers in Mississippi discovered Ms. Gaither’s dismembered body. DNA testing ultimately identified the body as Ms. Gaither.  Her head, hands, and feet were never recovered.

The proof at trial showed that Mr. Hawkins murdered Ms. Gaither because she was threatening to call the police and report Mr. Hawkins for sexually abusing their daughter.  Their daughter testified at trial about the murder and the events that followed it. She explained that Mr. Hawkins had sexually abused her for many years, but she had not told anyone because she was afraid of him. Her brothers also testified and corroborated their sister’s testimony concerning the sexual abuse and the events surrounding the murder.  Other witnesses testified about statements Ms. Gaither had made to them expressing her fear that Mr. Hawkins planned to kill her and was sexually abusing their daughter. The jury convicted Mr. Hawkins of premeditated murder, making a false report, and abuse of a corpse.

After a separate sentencing hearing on the first degree murder conviction, the jury imposed the death sentence based on two statutory aggravating circumstances—Mr. Hawkins’ prior violent felony convictions and his mutilation of the victim’s body after death. Mr. Hawkins appealed, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his convictions and sentences.

The Tennessee Supreme Court reviewed the case automatically, as required by statute, and affirmed the convictions and sentences.  The Supreme Court ruled that, although Mr. Hawkins was illegally seized without a warrant, the admission into evidence of the statement he gave while illegally held was harmless error beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Supreme Court also rejected Mr. Hawkins other assignments of error, concluding that the trial court had not erred: (1) by refusing to accept Mr. Hawkins’ guilty pleas to the non-capital offenses at the beginning of trial, after the jury had been sworn; (2) by admitting testimony about the victim’s threats to call the police and report Mr. Hawkins’ sexual abuse of their daughter; (3) by admitting statements made by the victim in her application for an order of protection against Mr. Hawkins about her fear of Mr. Hawkins and her suspicions that he was sexually abusing their daughter; or (4) by allowing Mr. Hawkins’ children to testify about his acts of violence and sexual abuse of their sister. The Court also rejected the challenges based on the prosecutor’s closing argument, explaining that any impropriety had not deprived Mr. Hawkins of a fair trial.

The Court also affirmed Mr. Hawkins’s death sentence, concluding that it was not arbitrary, that the evidence sufficiently supported the jury’s findings that the aggravating circumstances had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt.  Finally, the Court held the death sentence was not disproportionate to the death sentences imposed in other cases, considering the nature of the crime and the defendant. Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a separate opinion agreeing that the death sentence was neither excessive nor disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the nature of the crime and the defendant.

To read the majority opinion in State of Tennessee v. James Hawkins, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, and the concurring opinion, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.