State v. Bridgers, 172 N.C. 879 (1916)

Sept. 13, 1916 · Supreme Court of North Carolina
172 N.C. 879


(Filed 13 September, 1916.)

1. Homicide — Murder—Circumstantial Evidence — Motive.

Where there is no direct proof that the prisoner on trial for murder committed the crime with which he is charged, and recourse is had to circumstantial evidence, the question of motive is properly considered in the chain of proof.

2. Same — Identification—Trials—Evidence—Questions for Jury.

Upon a trial for murder there was evidence tending to show that the deceased, a married woman, was the paramour of the prisoner; that he tvas the last seen with her'when she was going to her husband’s home, and was afterwards seen no more alive, hut'was discovered murdered near the place he had been with her; that he was jealous of her husband and threatened her life, and to take from her feet shoes he had given her, should she go back to him; that he told a witness of the deceased if she were found dead the witness would know who killed her; that he said, after her disappearance, that he knew where she was, but would not say for fear the witness would tell; that when the body was found, shoes that the prisoner had given her had been taken from her feet in accordance with his previous threat, etc. Held, sufficient to identify the prisoner as the murderer and sustain a verdict of murder in the'second degree.

INDICTMENT for murder, tried before Lyon, J., at March Term, 1916, of Edgecombe.

The prisoner was charged with having murdered Easter Grimes on 2 January, 1916. There was a verdict of murder in the second degree and a sentence of twenty years in the State Prison, from which judgment the prisoner .appealed.

There was a motion for judgment of nonsuit when the State rested, and again at the close of all the testimony, and the only question presented for) review is raised by the exceptions to the denial of those motions.

The deceased disappeared on the first Sunday or Monday in January, 1916, and her dead body was found February, 1916, about 1 mile from *880tbe courthouse iu Tarboro, near tbe road leading to Rocky Mount. It was in tbe woods about 300 yards from tbe road, and bad been dragged part o£ tbe way and was mucb decomposed; there was a bole in ber bead. Tbe prisoner was arrested same evening and placed in jail, where be remained until trial. Easter Grimes lived with Della Kille-brew and bad been there since 1 September, 1915. Della Killebrew testified that tbe prisoner came to see. Easter twice during that time. There was evidence by "Walter White that tbe defendant bad been seen with ber several times around Tarboro, and Eliza Powell, a State’s witness, testified that she saw him with ber tbe first Sunday in January about dusk, two blocks south of courthouse. This was tbe last time she was seen by any State’s witness. Tbe prisoner introduced several witnesses who saw ber Monday morning coming towards Tarboro by tbe place where she was found dead.

Fannie Killebrew, daughter of Della Killebrew, testified as to what defendant said to ber on 7 January: “Doe said, 'Where is Easter?’ I said, 'I don’t know, Doc; do you know?’ He said, 'No,’ then said, 'I am just joking; I would tell you, but you would tell.’ I said, 'Where is she?’ He said, 'No, I ain’t going to tell.’ 'Did you see tbe shoes I bought.her?’ I said, 'Yes; they certainly is pretty. How mucb did you pay for them?’ He said, 'Pour dollars.’ I said, 'You didn’t pay $4; you paid $3.50, because I got mine for $3.50; they were on sale.’ 'Don’t you know I almost forsaken my wife for that woman ?’ He said: 'I’d suffer in bell before I let ber go back to ber husband. When you bear she is dead, you’ll know d — n well who did it.’ ” She further testified: “After she disappeared, be came twice, calling for ber; about two or three weeks after she disappeared; told him I did not know* where she was.”

Eliza Powell testified that tbe prisoner and tbe deceased were at bis sister’s, two blocks south of courthouse, on Albemarle Avenue, talking, and left ber bouse on Sunday about dusk, going toward Main Street, and she said that she was going home. She further said that tbe prisoner told ber that Easter Grimes bad gone to Rocky Mount on tbe first Sunday in January.

Carrie Killebrew testified: “Walter White came to our bouse.”

Rosa Hart testified that she bad a conversation with tbe defendant, after tbe deceased disappeared, as follows: “He asked if I bad seen Easter; I told him no, and asked if be bad seen ber. He said no; I said, 'I thought she was in Rocky Mount with ber husband.’ He said, 'She is.’ I said, 'How do you know?’ He said, No, she’s not there; but I know where she is. If you knew, would you go to ber ?’ I said, 'Yes.’ He said, ‘If you promise, I will carry you to see ber. You be ready and I’ll carry you there to see Easter.’ ”

*881Walter White testified that he had seen the defendant and deceased together several times and heard the defendant tell her that “he had bought her the shoes and whenever she wore them to Rocky Mount to see George he was going to kill her and pull them off.” He further testified that at the preliminary hearing he only said, “On Saturday after Christmas I saw them in E. Saide’s store; she had shoes in her hand and they were side by side; I was outside as she came out; she had a shoe box under her arm,” and said nothing about any threat.

J. W. Thomas, deputy sheriff, described the body and the place where it was found, and stated that “the body was found at 4:30 and defendant was arrested right after supper; that defendant held his nerve well when arrested; always said he was not guilty; that he had taken him out of the cell and talked with him.”

E. B. Hyatt testified that one shoe was found near the body, 30 di 35 feet away, after body was buried.

The above is the evidence which the State relied on to connect the defendant with the murder, and at the conclusion of the Same, the prisoner moved for judgment of nonsuit, which was refused.

The defendant testified that he went with the deceased on that Sunday evening to Dora Jackson’s (about 2 miles from Tarboro) and left her there; this was 1 mile beyond where the body was found; that the deceased was a woman of bad character; he offered the testimony of Dora Jackson, who testified that the deceased spent the night with hei and that she left for home the next morning; and the testimony of John Leggett, Arthur Lawrence, and Alex Parker, that they saw her coming from Dora Jackson’s towards Tarboro next' morning; and of Wiley Andrews, that she saw her at Dora Jackson’s house on Monday morning; of B. S. Price, Dossey Pittman, and Joe Dickens, that the defendant worked on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after the first Sunday in January on the Knightian d farm. B. S. Price also testified that the demeanor of prisoner was the same before and after January 1st, and that he made no effort to escape.

Dr. W.-W. Green, coroner, testified (page 18) : “Saw body; had been dead for about a month or longer; couldn’t say what killed her, nor how long she had been dead.”

The defendant again moved' for judgment of nonsuit, which was; refused.

The jury convicted the prisoner of murder in the second degree, and' he appealed from the judgment upon the verdict.

Attorney-General Bidcett and Assistant Attorney-General Calvert for the State.

W. 0. Howard for defendant.

*882Walker, J.,

after stating tbe ease: There is but a single point for us to decide in this case, and that is whether there is any evidence, even a scintilla, of the prisoner’s guilt. This is sometimes, and, we may say, quite often, a difficult question to answer, the difference between some evidence, though slight, and no evidence, requiring in many instances very fine discrimination. "We may say with certainty that evidence which merely shows it possible for the fact in issue to be as alleged, or which raises a mere conjecture that it is so, is an insufficient foundation for a verdict, and should not be left to the jury. S. v. Vinson, 68 N. C., 335; Brown v. Emsey, 81 N. C., 245; S. v. Christmas, 101 N. C., 749; S. v. Costner, 127 N. C., 566; S. v. Lytle, 117 N. C., 799; S. v. Carmon, 145 N. C., 481; S. v. Walker, 149 N. C., 527. We said in Byrd v. Express Co., 139 N. C., 276: “Judges are no longer required to submit a case to the jury merely because some evidence has been introduced by the party having the burden of proof, unless the evidence be of such a character as that it would warrant the jury to proceed in finding a verdict in favor of the party introducing such evidence. Cobb v. Fogalman, 23 N. C., 440; Wittkowsky v. Wasson, 71 N. C., 451; Sutton v. Madre, 47 N. C., 320; Pettiford v. Mayo, 117 N. C., 27; Lewis v. Steamship Co., 132 N. C., 904. In the last cited case the subject is fully discussed by Connor, J., and the cases collected. It all comes to this, that there must be legal evidence of the fact in issue and not merely such as raises a suspicion or conjecture in regard to -it. The plaintiff must do' more than show the possible liability of the defendant for the injury. He must go further and offer at least some evidence which reasonably tends to prove every fact essential to his success.” So it was held in Campbell v. Everhart, 139 N. C., 503, 516: “The sufficiency of evidence in law to- go to the jury does not depend upon the doctrine of chances. However confidently one, in his own affairs, may base his judgment on mere probability as to a past event, when he assumes the burden of establishing such event as a proposition of fact and as a basis for the judgment of a court, he must adduce evidence other than a majority of chances that the fact to be proved does exist. It must be more than sufficient for a mere guess, and must be such as tends to actual proof. But the province of the jury should not be invaded in any case, and when reasonable minds, acting within the limitations prescribed by the rules of law, might reach different conclusions, the evidence must be submitted to the jury,” citing authorities. It will not do, -it is conceded, to convict any man of a crime upon mere conjecture, or even the strongest suspicion, if it does not rise to the dignity and certainty of legal proof which excludes all reasonable doubt of his guilt. But we are not embarrassed in this case by the necessity of resorting to nice refinement in our reasoning, or *883any fine-spun distinction between wbat .is some and wbat is no evidence, for tbe facts and circumstances bere do not approach tbe border line separating tbe one from tbe other.

Where there is no direct proof of tbe commission of tbe criminal act by tbe prisoner, and we must have recourse to circumstantial evidence, it is proper to consider tbe motive to do tbe act, if be bad it, as one of tbe links in tbe chain of proof. This was decided in S. v. Addons, 138 N. C., 688, 697, in this language: “When tbe evidence is circumstantial, the proof of a motive for committing tbe crime is relevant, and sometimes is important and very potential, as it may carry conviction to the minds of tbe jurors, when otherwise they would not be convinced. This is all that is meant by tbe Court in tbe cases cited by counsel. S. v. Green, 92 N. C., 779. Murder may be committed without any motive. It is tbe intention deliberately formed, after premeditation, so that it becomes a definite purpose to kill, and a consequent killing without legal provocation or excuse, that constitutes murder in the first degree. Tbe existence of a motive may be evidence to show tbe degree of tbe offense, or to establish tbe identity of tbe defendant as tbe slayer, but motive is not an essential element of tbe crime, nor is it indispensable to a conviction of tbe person charged with its commission.” Citing S. v. Wilcox, 132 N. C., 1143; S. v. Adams, 136 N. C., 620. The prisoner bad tbe motive to commit this crime, because be so declared himself. Tbe deceased had been bis paramour; be was infatuated with her and jealous of her husband. She bad frequently been bis companion and was seen with him by tbe neighbors. He was with her shortly before she -disappeared to be seen alive no more. Tbe evidence fairly warrants tbe inference that be was tbe last person who was with her just before her death. A few days after she was last seen on Sunday, 2 January, or Monday, 3 January, 1916, be inquired of Fannie Eullebrew where Easter Grimes was, and when she replied that she did not know, and asked him if be knew, be, at first, said, “No,” but immediately corrected himself and then' admitted that be was joking when he said “No,” and that be did know, but would not tell her, lest she might tell it to some one else. Tbe. jury -might well conclude from this admission that be knew where she was, and, if so, that be knew she was then dead and where her body lay. If this be-true, and be bad knowledge then of her death, which was a violent one, it would not be unreasonable or unsafe to infer that be was present when she was killed. But this is not by any means all of tbe evidence pointing to tbe prisoner as her slayer. He treated this serious matter with some levity, and talked a great deal in a light vein. This may have been merely characteristic of his race, or idle and frivolous talk; but it is not inconsistent with the cold-heartedness and manifest indifference with which be bad *884threatened her life if slie dare return to ber husband at Rocky Mount. In tbis connection bis last words to Fannie Killebrew after talking about tbe shoes are significant: “Don’t you know, I almost forsaken my wife for that woman ? I would suffer in bell before I would let ber go back to Her husband. "When you bear she is dead, you will know damned well who did it.” He bad given ber tbe shoes as bis mistress, and was determined, and so warned ber, that she should not attempt a return to ber husband, where she belonged, except at the cost of her life. All this means that if she started back to Rocky Mount, where her husband lived, he would kill ber first and then pull the shoes from her feet, and that is what was done. She was on her way back to ber husband and had gone one mile or more when be executed bis threat by killing her, dragging her'body into the woods, and then taking her shoes off and dropping one of them neax where her body lay. He knew that she had gone to Rocky Mount on the first Sunday in January, for be told Eliza Powell so, and tbis shows that he must either have gone with her for tbe one mile, or that be overtook ber, after be had discovered ber whereabouts, and then slew ber, as she was doing what he had forbidden her to do on pain of her life. It makes little or no difference which version is the true one, whether he went with her or caught up with her on her way to her husband’s home. The fact that he was with her at the time is the material and vital one. He told Rosa Hart that Easter was not in Rocky Mount, and he knew where she was. How could he know she had not reached Rocky Mount, but was killed on her way to the place, unless he was with her ? He knew that she had started for her husband’s home, and there is no evidence that any one else was with her or knew where she had gone. This evidence points strongly to the prisoner as her guilty companion in her last moments. But why is not his own words to Fannie Killebrew and Rosa Hart substantially a confession of bis guilt or at least of bis presence when and where the homicide was committed % He admitted when Easter was lying dead in the woods that he knew where she was, and he told Fannie Killebrew, “When you bear she is dead, you will know damned well who did it,” and be said tbis because he had threatened to kill her if she went to her home with the shoes, and his neighbors knew of his threat. Therefore, it was that be said to one of them, “You will know who committed the deed when you bear of her being dead,” meaning , without any doubt, that he had done it, as Easter was then dead. If she had been killed after he made these statements, the evidence would still be strong, but being dead at tbe time, his words amount to a present confession of his guilt, and not merely to a threat of committing tbe act in tbe future.

The prisoner, as a witness in his own behalf, denied that he had said to the State’s witnesses what they testified that he- did. The evidence *885offered by him, except bis own denial of tbe charge, is not necessarily inconsistent witb tbe fact tbat be killed Easter Grimes. It does not account for bis presence elsewhere for tbe whole period of time during which tbe homicide may have been committed, and besides it was tbe province of tbe jury to decide whether the evidence was true. It does not appear tbat any other person bad any motive to commit tbe crime, or tbe opportunity, but, on tbe contrary, tbe combination of motive, threat, time, place, and circumstances, as detailed by tbe witnesses, all tend to establish tbe guilt of tbe prisoner. Brown v. State, 141 Ga., 5.

There was no error in overruling tbe motion to nonsuit and submitting tbe case to tbe jury upon tbe evidence. . *

No error.