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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Argument - To attempt escape
Number of victims: 2
Date of murder: October 9, 1998 / July 11, 2001
Date of birth: October 29, 1979
Victim profile: James Helmet / Tom Harris (fellow inmate)
Method of murder: Shooting / Strangulation with a sock
Location: Wayne County, Tennessee, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in 1999. Sentenced to death on May 15, 2004

The Supreme Court of Tennessee


State of Tennessee v. Joel Richard Schmeiderer


The Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee
At Nashville


State of Tennessee v. Joel Richard Schmeiderer


Joel Richard Schmeiderer was found guilty of using a sock to strangle Tom Harris, a fellow inmate at the South Central Correctional Facility in Wayne County.


Joel Richard Schmeiderer—white, age 21

Due to a change of venue, sentenced to death in Murray County for a crime that was committed in Wayne County, Tennessee

By: A jury

Date of crime: 6/2001

Prosecution’s case/defense response: Schmeiderer was in prison for life for murder and other crimes. While awaiting trial on that case he had escaped once, and tried to escape another time. As a lifer, he then strangled inmate Tom Harris with a sock. Harris bit Schmeiderer’s finger during the struggle, and Schmeiderer’s blood was found in both the victim’s cell and Schmeiderer’s. Additionally, an eyewitness saw him leaving the victim’s cell. The motive for the slaying was not totally clear, but Schmeiderer had told another inmate that he had to commit another crime to get back into the trial system so as to perhaps have opportunities to escape. Schmeiderer’s co-conspirator Chuck Sanderson was convicted of Harris’s murder, but was spared a death sentence by a separate jury. At the penalty phase the defense presented evidence of Schmeiderer’s rotten childhood, and alleged recent religious conversion.

Prosecutor(s): Doug Dicus, Patrick Butler
Defense lawyer(s): Claudia Jack, Shipp Weems

Sources: State v. Schmeiderer, 2000 WL 1681030 (Tenn. Crim. App.)


Tennessee Supreme Court upholds death sentence for Schmeiderer in inmate killing

Associated Press

September 24, 2010

In Nashville, the Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence of Joel Richard Schmeiderer.

A news release issued Thursday says the court set his execution date for September 13, 2011, after rejecting Schmeiderer's automatic appeal.

Schmeiderer was convicted of 1st-degree premeditated murder after admitting he strangled fellow inmate Tom Harris with a sock on July 11, 2001, at the South Central Correctional Center in Clifton.

The death row inmate said he killed Harris because he felt the man's sentence wasn't long enough. He also thought it would be easier to pull off an escape while making future court appearances.

The court ruled that mistakes made in the sentencing phase of Schmeiderer's trial were harmless errors and rejected all other arguments.


Joel Richard Schmeiderer

On October 9, 1998, Thomas Smith and his friend James Helmet initially encountered Joel Schmeiderer at a BP gas station in Belfast, Tennessee. Helmet and Schmeiderer argued, and, when Stout and Helmet tried to drive away, Schmeiderer, two other men, and a woman followed them.

Stout said that Schmeiderer's car approached them at a high speed and stayed close to his back bumper. Stout recalled that a gun emerged from the back window of Schmeiderer's car and discharged three or four times. The car followed his truck closely as the shooter continued to shoot.

Stout drove up to a house, and Schmeiderer rammed Stout's truck with his car. Stout and Helmet jumped out of the truck and began yelling at the man who lived in the house to call the police. Schmeiderer then began pilfering Stout's radio and other electronics from his truck.

When Stout shouted at him to stop, Schmeiderer pulled out a gun and shot at them. Stout ran into the woods; Helmet died in front of the house from gunshot wounds.

On cross-examination, Stout said he could not tell who drove the car chasing him. Ted Olkowski also testified about the events involved in Schmeiderer's attempted first degree murder conviction, stating that, on October 9, 1998, he lived in a rural area near Shelbyville, Tennessee, with his wife.

He said that, on that date, he heard a crash, and he saw a truck on his lawn that had been hit by car. The men in the truck exited and ran behind Olkowski's house while yelling that someone shot at them and ran them off the road. Olkowski said that he saw the car that rammed the truck come back to the property and that it stopped in the middle of the road. At that point, Schmeiderer, without speaking to Olkowski, "stepped out and walked up to Olkowski, pointed a gun in his chest and pulled the trigger, and it misfired." Schmeiderer tried to un-jam his gun, and then Schmeiderer and his friend vandalized Helmet's truck.

Olkowski said, "The boy who owned the truck, ran from around the back of the house . . . hollering get out of the truck. So they did. You know, he got out, pulled the pistol back out and fired off a round at him (Helmet), when he was about halfway up the driveway." Helmet fell to the ground, and Schmeiderer aimed downwards towards the body and tried to shoot him again, but the gun jammed.

Linda Olkowski testified similarly to her husband, saying that she heard a crash outside the house and saw that a blue truck had crashed into her cedar tree. She saw "two boys . . . running at me, screaming 'call the sheriff, somebody is shooting at us.'" She called the sheriff twice, the second time being after she heard gun shots. Linda testified that Schmeiderer, who was fifteen feet from Helmet, aimed and shot Helmet, who then fell back against her house. She saw Schmeiderer try to shoot Helmet again.

Schemiderer was 18 years old and was convicted of two counts of attempted first degree murder and one count of first degree murder and also pled guilty to aggravated assault.

He was in prison on those convictions on the evening of July 11, 2001.  Tom Harris, an inmate at the South Central Correctional Center in Clifton, Tennessee, was strangled to death in his cell. Tom Harris’s cell was located on the second floor of a “pod.” The cells belonging to Joel Richard Schmeiderer, and his codefendant, Charles Sanderson, were on the first floor in that pod. Inmates were permitted access to cells within their pod.

Tom Harris was last seen alive in his cell at approximately 7:00 p.m. when Jeremy Means, a correctional officer, delivered an educational pass for Tom’s cellmate, Robert Craig. Shortly after 8:00 p.m., inmates returned to their pod for a head court after a period of recreation. Officer Means could not see Tom’s cell from his post at the entry to the pod. Daniel Pollen, who was housed next to Tom’s cell, testified that he heard loud “thumping” noises coming from the cell at approximately 8:10 p.m.

Another inmate, Douglas Ford, testified that he saw Schmeiderer and Sanderson quickly leave Tom Harris’s cell at approximately 8:20 or 8:25 p.m. A few minutes later, Craig went to Tom Harris’s cell. Because Craig had been housed in Tom Harris’s cell for only one night, he did not yet have a key. Tom Harris and Robert Craig had been using a piece of cardboard to prevent the cell door from locking, but the cardboard was not in the door. Tom did not answer when Craig pounded on the locked door.

Officer Means responded to Craig’s call for help at 8:30 p.m. Officer Means unlocked the cell and found Tom Harris face down on the floor with a sock around his neck. The cell was in disarray. There was blood on the sock, his shirt, the television, the outside door handle, and a towel in the sink.

Schmeiderer’s cell was located at the bottom of a stairway, and a blood trail led from Tom Harris’s cell to the top of the stairway. Schmeiderer’s cellmate, Jeffrey Hubert, testified Schmeiderer met in their cell with Sanderson on the day of the murder. The men stopped talking each time Hubert entered the cell. When the guards locked down the prison at 8:45 p.m., Hubert returned to the cell. Schmeiderer told him that “it was going to be a long night.” Schmeiderer also indicated that the guards would find blood on his pants because he had injured himself on the basketball court that day.

Hubert saw Schmeiderer remove a shirt from a plastic bag and use his teeth to tear off a part of the shirt containing a blood stain. Schmeiderer flushed the bloody material down the toilet. The blood-stained pants and blood-stained torn shirt were found in subsequent searches of Schmeiderer’s cell.

Hubert asked Schmeiderer whether “he had stuck the old man upstairs.” Schmeiderer replied, “The man hadn’t been stuck. He’d been strangled to death.” Schmeiderer told Hubert that the “old man put up a fight” and “bit Chuck [Sanderson] on the hand.” Schmeiderer also remarked that Tom Harris was a “baby raper” whose sentence was not long enough and that the killing would get Schmeiderer back into court, giving him an opportunity to escape.

Two agents from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (“TBI”) interviewed Schmeiderer after he waived his Miranda rights. When asked to explain what happened, he responded, “Well, you’re the investigators, you tell me.” The agents then related to him their theory that he and Sanderson had gone into Tom Harris’s cell. A struggle ensued during which Sanderson’s finger was bitten and bled. Schmeiderer punched Tom Harris and ultimately strangled him with a sock.

In the process, Schmeiderer’s clothes were stained with both Tom Harris’s blood and Sanderson’s blood. Essentially confirming this theory, Schmeiderer stated, “That’s pretty much it.” When asked if he was bothered by taking a man’s life, Schmeiderer laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “No.”

Dr. Charles Harlan, the pathologist who performed the autopsy of Tom Harris, determined that the cause of death was strangulation. In addition to scrapes and bruises, Tom Harris’s body had a line around the neck with broken capillaries, indicating that an object was tied or wrapped around the neck tightly. Serological testing showed that Sanderson’s blood was on the television in Tom Harris’s cell, the outside door handle, and the towel in the sink. The sock used to strangle Tom Harris contained both his and Sanderson’s blood. Schmeiderer’s shirt had Tom Harris’s blood on it. Schmeiderer’s pants contained both Tom Harris’s and Sanderson’s blood.

In defense, Schmeiderer presented the testimony given by Sanderson at his separate trial. In that prior testimony, Sanderson stated that on the evening of the murder he went to Tom Harris’s cell to beat up Tom Harris for disrespecting Sanderson earlier that day. Schmeiderer stayed outside Tom Harris’s cell as a lookout. Sanderson knocked Tom Harris against the wall and hit him several times in the face after he bit Sanderson’s finger. Sanderson cleaned his finger at the sink, wiping his hand on the towel. When he left the cell, Tom Harris was alive, sitting on the bunk. Sanderson and Schmeiderer then went their separate ways. Sanderson could not explain how his blood got on Schmeiderer’s pants or on the sock around Tom Harris’s neck.

The jury convicted Schmeiderer of first degree premeditated murder. A sentencing hearing was conducted to determine punishment. During the sentencing phase, the State presented the testimony of the warden of the South Central Correctional Center, who confirmed that Schmeiderer was an inmate there on the day of the murder.

The State also introduced proof that in August 1999 a jury convicted Schmeiderer of first degree premeditated murder and two counts of attempted first degree premeditated murder and that he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in December 1999. Through the testimony of the two victims of Schmeiderer’s attempted murders and the wife of one of those victims, the facts underlying these convictions and the murder conviction were presented.

Their testimony showed that on October 9, 1998, when Schmeiderer was eighteen years old, he argued with two men at a gas station. When the two men left, Schmeiderer and his companions gave chase, shooting at the men’s truck. The chase ended when Schmeiderer’s car rammed the truck. The two men got out of the truck and ran behind a nearby house. Schmeiderer approached the owner of the house and tried to shoot him, but the gun misfired.

When the two men returned to the truck, Schmeiderer fired the gun at them. One of the men was fatally shot and fell against the house. Schmeiderer tried to shoot him again, but the gun misfired.

In mitigation, Schmeiderer presented the testimony of Joseph Cody Uttmor, who was with Schmeiderer when he committed the earlier murder and attempted murders. Uttmor explained that he and Schmeiderer were high on Xanax at the time.

Schmeiderer also presented the testimony of three family members. His mother testified that she never married Schmeiderer’s father, who showed no affection toward Schmeiderer. Schmeiderer started getting into trouble in high school. After he was sent to an alternative school, he began stealing drugs, money, and guns. He entered a juvenile facility at age fifteen and remained there until his eighteenth birthday.

Schmeiderer’s maternal aunt and twelve-year-old sister testified that they loved Schmeiderer, and they asked the jury not to sentence him to death. Three witnesses testified about Schmeiderer’s more recent conduct at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. Mickey Sawyers, a case manager at Riverbend, testified that Schmeiderer had remained discipline-free during the prior two years.

Ron Mosby and Adam Olsen, ministerial volunteers at Riverbend, testified that Schmeiderer, who was baptized in February 2004, had much to offer in life and could be fruitful even in the prison environment.

Finally, Schmeiderer presented the testimony of Dr. Ann Marie Charvat, a mitigation specialist. She testified regarding her review of Schmeiderer’s school, medical, juvenile, and prison records. Although Schmeiderer was evaluated at a psychiatric facility when he entered the juvenile justice system, he never received the recommended treatment for drug addiction. Just a few months after he was released from state custody, he committed his earlier murder and attempted murders. The “theme” of Schmeiderer’s life was exclusion – exclusion from his father’s family, exclusion from a regular school environment, and exclusion from a normal teenage life. Dr. Charvat believed that Schmeiderer suffered from a cognitive emotional disorder resulting from “extreme psychological abuse.”

Based on this proof, the jury found that the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt both statutory aggravating circumstances: Schmeiderer was previously convicted of one or more felonies, other than the present charge, whose statutory elements involve the use of violence; and the murder was committed by Schmeiderer while Schmeiderer was in lawful custody or in a place of lawful confinement. The jury further found that the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the statutory aggravating circumstances outweighed any mitigating circumstances. As a result, the jury sentenced Schmeiderer to death for the murder of Tom Harris.


Joel Richard Schmeiderer




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