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Richard L. ODOM

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Homicide/Murderer
Characteristics: Juvenile (17) - Robbery - Rape
Number of victims: 2
Date of murder: May 4, 1978 / May 10, 1991
Date of birth: August 13, 1960
Victim profile: Mary Rebecca Roberts / Mina Ethyl Johnson, 77
Method of murder: Shooting / Stabbing with knife
Location: Rankin County, Mississippi / Shelby County, Tennessee, USA
Status: Pleaded guilty in Mississippi in 1978 and received a life sentence. Retried and again convicted in 1998. Sentenced to death in Tennessee on October 15, 1992
 
 
 
 
 
 

Richard L. Odom was resentenced to death on January 16, 2008 for the murder of 77-year-old Mina Johnson, who was raped and killed while Odom was on the run from a murder sentence in Mississippi.

 
 

Death penalty for convicted murderer, rapist Richard Odom upheld on 3rd try

By Lawrence Buser

March 3, 2011

The Tennessee Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the death sentence of a Mississippi man convicted of raping and murdering an elderly woman in 1991 in a Medical Center parking garage.

The case of Richard Odom has been up and down the appellate court ladder several times and at one stage cost a judge her seat when opponents accused her of being soft on crime.

Odom, 49, has been sentenced to death by three separate Shelby County juries over the past 20 years, though until Thursday the case had been overturned on appeal.

He was convicted and sentenced to death for raping and stabbing to death 77-year-old Mina Ethyl Johnson in May 1991 as she was exiting her car in a parking garage at Madison and Pauline.

In 1992, Odom was convicted and sentenced to death the first time, but the state Supreme Court overturned the sentence after finding that the murder did not meet the legal definition of heinous, atrocious and cruel.

The decision then became a rallying cry for victims' rights advocates who helped oust Justice Penny White in 1996 when she was up for a retention vote.

Three years later, a new jury sentenced Odom to death, but the Supreme Court in 2004 again reversed the sentence, ruling that state prosecutors should not have been allowed to give the jury graphic, violent details of a prior murder by Odom.

In 2007, yet a third jury heard the evidence and sentenced him to death, the sentence affirmed Thursday by the high court.

"We conclude that because the sentencing hearing was performed in accordance with this state's statutory mandates and procedural rules regarding capital sentencing hearings, the defendant's death sentence was not arbitrarily imposed," Justice Gary Wade wrote in the unanimous opinion.

 
 

Background

The defendant, Richard Odom, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death for raping and killing seventy-seven-year-old Mina Ethel Johnson in 1991 in Memphis, Tennessee. The evidence presented at the re-sentencing proceeding is summarized as follows.

Prosecution's Evidence

On May 10, 1991, Mina Ethel Johnson's body was found on the back seat floorboard of her car in a parking garage in Memphis, Tennessee. The victim's lower body had been left exposed, and she was bleeding from her anus and vagina. There were multiple stab wounds in the victim's back and two bloody hand prints on her hips.

Sergeant Ronnie McWilliams of the Memphis Police Department testified that fingerprints found in the victim's car led to Odom's arrest on May 13, 1991. A search revealed that Odom was in possession of a "large knife," which he kept under his shirt. Odom initially told officers that his name was "Otis Smith" and that he had been imprisoned in Mississippi for a murder that occurred in 1978. Odom confessed that he intended to steal the victim's purse and forced her into the back seat of her vehicle. When the victim said, "What are you doing, son," Odom replied, "I'll give you your damn son." Odom admitted that he raped the victim and that the victim told him that she "never had sex with a man before." Odom admitted that the knife officers found in his possession was the knife he used to stab the victim. He did not recall how many times he stabbed the victim. Odom said that he found no money in the victim's wallet or purse, and that he left the victim in her car and fled. McWilliams testified that the defendant was "open" and "kind of bragging a little bit about the situation."

Dr. Jerry Francisco, who performed an autopsy on the victim, testified that the victim bled to death from a stab wound to the right ventricle of her heart. The victim also had stab wounds to her liver and right lung and two defensive wounds to her right hand. The victim suffered tears to the posterior part of her vagina, which were caused by a traumatic event such as attempted penetration, and sperm was found in her vagina. Dr. Francisco testified that the injuries were inflicted while the victim was alive, that the wounds would not have caused instant death, and that the wounds would have caused immediate pain.

John Sullivan, a family friend, testified that Mina Ethel Johnson was a "shy, genteel" woman who had never married or had children and who was capable of managing her own affairs. Louise Long, the victim's sister, testified that the victim was retired from her job as secretary at an insurance company and was active in her church. She testified that the victim had broken her foot and was going to the doctor when she was killed. Long also stated that she missed the victim because she no longer had "any family at all to go to."

In addition to the evidence regarding this offense, the prosecution presented evidence regarding the facts of the defendant's two prior violent felony convictions to support the aggravating circumstance it relied upon to seek the death penalty. See Tenn. Code Ann. 39-13-204(i)(2) (prior convictions for felony offenses whose statutory elements involved violence to a person). The prior felony convictions included a 1992 robbery conviction in Shelby County, Tennessee, and a 1998 first degree murder conviction based on events that occurred in 1978 in Rankin County, Mississippi, when the defendant was seventeen years old.

With regard to the 1992 robbery conviction, the prosecution presented the testimony of the victim, Lillian Hammond. Hammond testified that on May 8, 1991, she was approached by the defendant outside of her office at Shelby State Community College in Memphis, Tennessee. The defendant demanded Hammond's purse and threatened to kill or harm Hammond if she made any noise. Hammond testified that the defendant made vulgar sexual comments and said, "I want you." The defendant grabbed Hammond's arm and caused her to fall to the ground. He took Hammond's purse and ran away.

With regard to the 1998 first degree murder conviction, the prosecution presented evidence that the defendant killed the victim, Mary Rebecca Roberts, on May 4, 1978. Terri Roberts, the victim's daughter, testified that her parents owned a drive-in theater in Pearl, Mississippi, and lived in a trailer next to the theater.

(The defendant pleaded guilty to this offense in 1978 and received a life sentence. After filing a successful petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, the defendant was retried and again convicted in 1998)

A police officer, Ernest Simmons, testified that he was called to the Roberts' trailer and discovered the body of Mary Rebecca Roberts slumped in a recliner. The victim was covered in blood and had gunshot wounds to her face. The recliner apparently had been moved some nine feet from the wall and placed directly in front of the door. Two knives and bullet casings were found in the trailer. A bloody hand towel and a "stainless steel Army mess-kit knife" also were found in the trailer; the knife blade was bent at "a 90 degree angle." There were bloodstains in the trailer and at the drive-in where a safe was kept. Simmons testified that the murder weapon was a .22 caliber bolt action rifle that required reloading between shots.

According to Simmons, the police later questioned the defendant, then seventeen, who told officers that he went to the trailer because he was owed money. When Roberts tried to hit him with a flower pot, the defendant hit her and chased her to a bedroom. The defendant then stabbed the victim with a knife and forced her to leave her trailer and open a safe at the drive-in from which he took $ 255 and two guns. The defendant told police officers that he and the victim returned to the trailer and that he "sat her down" in a recliner. When Roberts pleaded for her life, the defendant told her, "Shut up. I'm trying to think." The defendant claimed that the victim was shot when she grabbed the barrel of the gun he was holding. The defendant admitted, however, that he shot the victim a second time because he "was scared" and "wanted to make sure she was dead." The defendant also admitted that he threw one of the guns into a swamp and hid the other gun and some of the money. Simmons testified that the defendant "showed no remorse" and had been "extraordinarily calm" when he gave his statement to police.

Dr. George Sturgis, who performed the autopsy, testified that Roberts had a fatal gunshot wound to her left eye, a fatal gunshot wound to the right side of her forehead, and a critical stab wound in her chest that had penetrated her left lung. The gunshot to the victim's forehead had been fired from close range. Dr. Sturgis also testified that the victim suffered lacerations and puncture wounds to her neck and chest, as well as bruises to her neck that suggested strangulation.

An assistant attorney general testified that the defendant had shown no remorse during the trial in 1998, and that the defendant exhibited an attitude as if it "was somewhat of a game." The prosecutor also testified that she saw no indication that the defendant was suffering from any mental illness.

Defense Evidence

The defendant presented several witnesses in mitigation at the re-sentencing proceeding. Gloria Shettles Johnson, a private investigator who assists attorneys with capital cases, testified that she obtained childhood records, conducted interviews, and prepared a social history that included the following information.

The defendant was born on August 13, 1960, in Mississippi. His parents had married when the father was eighteen and the mother was fifteen. The defendant had an older sister and a younger sister. The defendant was often left in day care for days at a time. The defendant's father drank heavily, and his mother did not take care of the children. The defendant's parents gave him up for adoption when he was two and a half; he never again saw his mother and had only a brief encounter with his father at the age of thirteen.

According to Johnson, the defendant was adopted by Jimmy and Shirley Odom in 1963. Although Jimmy Odom was very "stern" and "loud," he was not physically abusive. About one year after the adoption, however, the Odoms divorced and Shirley Odom married Marvin Bruce. Bruce was "cruel to the children." He sexually abused the defendant and his step-brother and threatened to kill them if they told anyone. Bruce put hot sauce on the defendant's food and also put hot sauce directly in the defendant's mouth whenever the defendant asked for food. Bruce also berated the defendant into his teens for bed wetting on a regular basis. The defendant suffered from frequent episodes of sleep-walking; on one occasion, he urinated in the refrigerator while sleep-walking, and on several occasions, he urinated in a car.

At age twelve, the defendant began a pattern of delinquent behavior and running away from home. At age thirteen, the defendant was charged with larceny in the juvenile system and was institutionalized at the Columbia Training School. A psychologist at the institution diagnosed the defendant as schizoid and determined that he was "incorrigible," "brain damaged," and "not fit for society at age thirteen." At age fifteen, a psychologist conducted another evaluation and found that the defendant was "destined" to spend his life in institutions. At age sixteen, the defendant was released into the community on supervised juvenile parole. At age seventeen, the defendant murdered Mary Rebecca Roberts.

Johnson testified that one of the defendant's adoptive brothers, Larry Odom, had a criminal record and had served ten years in prison. Johnson was unable to verify whether a second adoptive brother, Jimmy Odom, had a record. Johnson acknowledged, however, that others who had grown up under the dominion and control of Marvin Bruce had not committed murder.

Johnson further testified that the defendant had earned a correspondence paralegal degree while in prison and had scored between 90 and 100% in several areas of the law. While imprisoned for the Mississippi murder of Mary Rebecca Roberts, the defendant's behavior was good enough to be transferred to a county jail where he was a cook and was elevated to "trustee" status. Johnson conceded that the defendant had been able to accomplish these things despite the 1974 psychological report that he was "brain damaged."

Dr. Dennis Earl Schmidt, a neuropharmacologist, testified that he, Dr. Steven Paul Rossby, and Dr. Benjamin Johnson visited the defendant in prison in 1999 to perform a court-ordered spinal tap. Dr. Schmidt later analyzed samples of the defendant's spinal fluid by using "high-performance liquid chromatography," and he testified that the test revealed the defendant had only about half the normal level of serotonin. He further explained that the level of serotonin found in the spinal column is directly indicative of serotonin function in the brain.

Dr. Rossby, a molecular neurobiologist, testified that Dr. Schmidt's test results indicated that the defendant's serotonin level was "severely, extremely abnormal" and the lowest level ever seen at his lab. Citing studies conducted in Finland and Sweden, Dr. Rossby explained that low serotonin levels are very strongly linked to "impulsive behaviors[,] including unrestrained aggression, violence, [and] rage." Although Dr. Rossby stated that low serotonin levels could cause a person to exhibit low self-control of impulses, he explained that "whatever impulses that are released by this low self-control depends upon the individual, depends on their birth, depends on their heredity, depends on their early childhood experiences." He testified that the victim's use of the word "son" may have "served as a trigger to release the rage that [the defendant] felt toward his mother or mother figures . . . ."

Dr. Rossby conceded that low serotonin levels have also been associated with nonviolent behaviors such as eating disorders and gambling addiction. In addition, he admitted that there were no studies conclusively linking low serotonin levels to violent behavior and that he could not state that the defendant's low serotonin level caused him to commit the murder of Mina Ethel Johnson. Although the defendant had no problems controlling impulsive rage while in prison, Dr. Rossby stated that the ability to control impulses is not tested as often in the structured environment of prison.

Prosecution's Rebuttal Evidence

In rebuttal, the prosecution presented the testimony of Dr. John Hutson, a clinical psychologist. Although Dr. Hutson testified that he was quite impressed with Dr. Rossby's testimony as a whole, he opined that based upon the current scientific understanding of the role of serotonin, it cannot really be said "that serotonin causes anything." In addition, Dr. Hutson testified that he was not aware of any literature stating that there is a causal relationship between serotonin, violent behavior, obesity, depression, suicide, or other abnormal behaviors.

At the conclusion of the sentencing proceeding, the jury determined that the evidence of the single aggravating circumstance outweighed the evidence of mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt and sentenced the defendant to death for the felony murder of Mina Ethel Johnson. After the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the sentence, the case was docketed automatically before this Court.

 
 


Richard L. Odom

 

 

 
 
 
 
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