Written By: Andrew Daffron, Associate Editor
This case involves the disappearance and assumed death of Ricci Lynn Ellsworth. The procedural history of this case takes place over twenty years and involved two trials and three sentencing hearings.
On February 8, 1997, the victim, Ricci Ellsworth, was working as the night clerk at the Memphis Inn in Shelby County. Ellsworth worked in an enclosed office in the motel lobby behind a locked door, shielded from guests by protective glass. On the night of Ellsworth’s disappearance, several guests reported seeing a figure in the motel’s parking lot near a maroon sedan. One guest reported entering the hotel lobby area in front of a figure that Ellsworth appeared to know. Another guest reported seeing two men walk into the lobby area. Another guest reported seeing a figure put something wrapped in a blanket in the trunk of his car, and the car sinking from the weight of the object. The guest then walked into the lobby after the man from the parking lot and reported seeing another man behind the counter pushing cash through the window. He reported that both men had blood on their hands.
At around 3:00 a.m., a local CSX worker tried to get in touch with crew members who were staying at the motel. When the clerk did not answer, he drove to the motel. Upon arriving, he went into the employee bathroom, finding the sink running, blood on the sink basin, and the toilet seat was removed and covered in blood. The worker attracted the attention of two Shelby County Sherriff’s Office patrol cars and directed them to the motel. The police were unable to find Ellsworth, though her car was still in the parking lot. The officers contacted the Memphis Police Department (MPD) which took over the investigation. The MPD officers took photographs of the crime scene, dusted for fingerprints, collected and tagged evidence, and completed paperwork. Blood samples were taken from numerous places blood was discovered. The victim’s body was never found.
The evidence quickly pointed to the Defendant. The Defendant previously had a tumultuous romantic relationship with the victim, during which he was convicted of raping her. During his incarceration for her rape, the Defendant met a childhood friend of the victim, who informed the Defendant that the victim has received a sum of money in settlement of a personal injury claim. This angered the Defendant who believed he was entitled to a portion of the money. The Defendant informed the friend that he intended to kill the victim upon his release from prison. This is one of several people the Defendant informed that he intended to kill the victim while incarcerated. He also bragged to another inmate about being able to dispose of a body in a manner where it would never be found. Upon his release from prison, the Defendant began working at a local automotive collision center. One of his coworkers drove a maroon sedan, which the Defendant asked to borrow. The car was never returned by the Defendant.
In early March, the defendant was stopped in Indiana for speeding. Upon running the car’s plates, the officer realized the MPD had an interest in the car as part of an ongoing investigation. The local police in Indiana contacted MPD who sent detectives that night. MPD detectives watched a local evidence technician process the car. The technician found traces of blood, took ninety-six photographs of the vehicle, and took multiple samples of blood-stained items found in the car. The car was then transported to Memphis and ultimately transferred to the TBI for testing. Evidence was then transferred to the FBI, which found the blood samples taken from the car to match blood samples taken from the crime scene. The FBI forensic examiner also compared the blood samples to samples from the victim’s mother, finding it likely that the samples were taken from a descendant of the mother. The maroon sedan was later returned to the coworker after MPD determined that it no longer had the storage capacity to hold the car, and that MPD had taken enough evidence from it.
After his arrest for the murder of the victim, the Defendant attempted to escape three times. The first escape attempt was from his cell in Indiana. There, he spoke to another inmate about having killed the victim. The second attempt was from a federal prisoner transport van. The third attempt was from the Shelby County Jail.
The first trial occurred in 1998. A jury convicted the Defendant of first-degree murder, aggravated robbery, and theft of property – the judge imposed a death sentence. The State had also charged the Defendant with felony murder, but the jury did not reach a verdict on this count. This was appealed and affirmed by the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Tennessee Supreme Court. The defendant sought post-conviction relief. The post-conviction trial court granted relief, finding ineffective assistance of counsel, and ordered a new trial.
During the second trial in 2016, the state called an expert witness to testify about the blood patterns at the crime scene. He testified that the blood stains were consistent with either blunt force trauma or trauma from a sharp object, stating it was possible for the toilet seat to have been used to kill the victim. The Defendant called two expert witnesses, both of whom raised issues with the collection and testing of the evidence, and that they were unable to make accurate determinations because the evidence was no longer available. After considering the evidence, the jury convicted the Defendant of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, and aggravated robbery. At the penalty phase of the trial, the Defendant waived his right to present mitigating evidence. The jury found an aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt and imposed a sentence of death.
The Tennessee Supreme Court first considered whether the conviction for felony murder violated the prohibition on double jeopardy. The Court found that it did not because of the nature of the jury instructions. The jury received instructions that were considered to be “acquittal first” instructions, meaning the jury was instructed to consider the lesser count only if it first found the defendant not guilty of the greater offense. As the jury found the Defendant to be guilty of the greater offense, it did not reach the felony murder charge, therefore negating any claim of double jeopardy. The Court also found that the Defendant failed to preserve the issue of prosecutorial misconduct in a manner that would create a double jeopardy issue.
The Court then considered whether MPD erred in not retaining the car so that the Defendant’s experts could evaluate the evidence. The Court affirmed the lower courts’ findings that the State did not have a duty to retain the car. The Court based this finding on the thoroughness of the retrieval of evidence from the car, finding that under these circumstances the car had little exculpatory value and that the Defendant had access to the investigatory materials. In the alternative, the Court found the State did not act improperly because there was no negligence in releasing the car to the owner, the vehicle itself had little significance as evidence, and a finding that the other evidence used at trial was overwhelming.
The Court turned next to whether the trial court erred in allowing the previous convictions for rape and assault under Tennessee Rules of Evidence 404(b). The Court found no abuse of discretion and that the trial court properly admitted the evidence as it was probative of identity, motive, intent, and premeditation, all non-propensity reasons for admission. The Court also considered whether the trial court erred in allowing evidence of the Defendant’s escape attempts. The Court stated that evidence of escape or attempted escape after the commission of a crime can be relevant and admissible at trial to show guilt, knowledge of guilt, and consciousness of guilt. The Court found that this evidence was similarly properly admitted under Rule 404(b), finding that the trial court mitigated any risk of unfair prejudice by giving the jury two limiting instructions about the use of this evidence.
The Court then conducted its mandatory review of the death sentence received by the Defendant. This review is statutorily mandated and is comprised of an evaluation of whether: (1) the death sentence was imposed in an arbitrary fashion; (2) the evidence supports the jury’s findings of statutory aggravating circumstances; (3) the evidence supports the jury’s finding that the aggravating circumstances outweighed any mitigating circumstances; and (4) the capital sentence is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the nature of the crime and the defendant.
The Court found that the trial court conducted both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial in accordance with the applicable statutes and procedural rules, and that the evidence was more than sufficient to support the guilty verdict. The imposition of the death sentence was therefore not arbitrary. The jury did find an aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt. The record contained little if any mitigating circumstances. Finally, the Court found that the sentence was proportional when compared to similar cases. Finding all the required conditions sufficiently met, the Court affirmed the death sentence.
This case highlights the importance of maintaining the record throughout the pendency of an appeal of a capital case. The events, in this case, occurred over the course of over twenty years and have involved numerous trials, sentencing hearings, and appeals, including to the Tennessee Supreme Court twice. The issues raised in this appeal all were resolved by looking to the record and either finding procedures were sufficiently followed, or in the appeal of the felony murder charge, insufficiently followed. Capital cases often take decades to reach their conclusion, so ensuring a record is sufficient to allow the reviewing court to adequately review each issue raised in subsequent appeals is crucial.