The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld the death penalty for the man who kidnapped, sexually abused, and murdered a woman in west Tennessee in 2010.
Rickey Alvis Bell, Jr. appealed his conviction and sentence after a trial court found him guilty of especially aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual battery, and two alternative counts of first-degree felony murder. The jury sentenced Bell to death for the first-degree murder conviction. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the convictions and sentence, despite finding that two of the four aggravating circumstances that warranted the death penalty were not supported by the record.
The Supreme Court, which is required to review all death penalty cases, also considered five other issues on appeal. The first issue was whether it was proper for the state to seek the death penalty in light of Bell’s possible intellectual disability. The court determined that the defense failed to prove that Bell suffered from an intellectual disability that would make him ineligible for the death penalty. The court also upheld the constitutionality of Tennessee’s law on this subject, concluding that defendants are permitted to present evidence of intellectual capacity in addition to I.Q. test scores, thereby avoiding constitutional issues.
Next, the court reviewed Bell’s two motions for mistrial based on testimony that he previously had been incarcerated, which typically is not admissible. The court determined that the brief testimony was not elicited by the state and was lacking in detail, that the trial court properly instructed the jury not to consider that statement, and that the other facts presented in the case were enough to outweigh any effect that limited testimony may have had on the jury.
The court also reviewed the trial court’s decision to prohibit any testimony regarding the husband’s extramarital affair with his ex-wife, which was ongoing at the time of the crime. The court agreed with Bell that the evidence was crucial to his defense, but determined that, in light of the entire record and the overall strength of the state’s case, the information would not have altered the jury’s verdict.
Bell next challenged whether the evidence was sufficient to support his convictions, an issue that often is appealed. After a trial court finds a defendant guilty, the burden shifts to the defendant on appeal to prove that the jury should not have convicted him. The court determined that the proof was sufficient to support the convictions.
Finally, the court reviewed the evidence supporting the aggravating circumstances as part of its mandatory review of the death sentence. Before a defendant is sentenced to death, the state is required to prove at least one aggravating circumstance in the perpetration of the crime. These circumstances include factors such as previous convictions for violent felonies, the atrociousness of the crime, and whether a rape and/or kidnapping was committed during a murder.
In this case, the trial court found that four aggravating circumstances applied. However, upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that two of those factors did not apply. First, Mr. Bell’s 1997 sentence from Pennsylvania did not involve a violent felony. Secondly, the trial court permitted the jury to apply the aggravating factors of the rape and kidnapping twice, when the law only permits one application.
Nonetheless, the court determined that the two remaining aggravating circumstances apply, and supported the death sentence. The Court also determined the sentence was not disproportionate to other similar sentences.
In a dissent written by Chief Justice Sharon Lee and joined by Justice Gary Wade, the two members of the Court disagreed with the majority on the issue of the defense presenting evidence of the husband’s extramarital affair. Chief Justice Lee wrote that the evidence against Bell was not overwhelming and the trial court hindered Bell’s defense by prohibiting him from presenting evidence of the victim’s husband’s affair.
To read the majority opinion in State v. Rickey Alvis Bell, Jr., authored by Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, and the dissent by Chief Justice Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.