Case Style: JAMES DEE LANHAM V. COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY
Case Number: 2015-SC-000388-MR
Judge: MEMORANDUM OPINION OF THE COURT
Court: Supreme Court of Kentucky
Plaintiff's Attorney: Andy Beshear, Thomas Allen Van De Rostyne
Defendant's Attorney: David Lambertus, Tricia Frances Lister
Description: Between the dates of January 15, 2012, through September 8, 2012, the
Appellant, James Dee Lanham committed a series of sexual assaults and other
sex crimes against three minor girls. The majority of the crimes involved a
young girl named Amy,' who was less than twelve years old when the crimes
occurred. The other two victims, Heather and Elizabeth, were less than sixteen
years old at the time of the crimes. Another minor girl, Katie, testified at trial
as having witnessed sexual acts between Lanham and Amy. She was
seventeen at the time she testified.
After Lanham was arrested and indicted, his home was searched,
revealing several items of evidence that will be discussed as necessary.
Pseudonyms are being used to protect the anonymity of all the child
A Jefferson Circuit Court jury convicted Lanham on four counts of rape,
two counts of sodomy, five counts of promoting sexual performance by a minor,
four counts of first-degree sexual abuse, and three counts of distribution of
obscene matter to minors. The jury acquitted Lanham on one count of
distribution of obscene matter to minor that involved Katie.
The jury recommended a sentence of 30 years' imprisonment for each
rape conviction, 30 years for each sodomy conviction, 15 years for each
promoting sexual performance by a minor conviction, seven years for each
first-degree sexual abuse conviction, and three years for each distribution
conviction. The jury further recommended that the sentences involving crimes
against Amy shall run concurrently with each other, for a total sentence of 30
years. It also recommended that the sentences involving crimes against
Heather shall run concurrently with each other for a total sentence of 15 years.
The sentences involving crimes against Elizabeth were recommended to run
concurrently with each other for a total sentence of 15 years. The sentences
against each of the three victims were to run consecutively for a total sentence
of 60 years' imprisonment. The trial court accepted the jury's
recommendation. Lanham now appeals his judgment and sentence as a matter
of right pursuant to § 110(2)(b) of the Kentucky Constitution. Five issues are
raised and addressed as follows.
One of the items of evidence discovered by police at Lanham's home was
a miniature baseball bat that Amy claims was used by Lanham to vaginally
penetrate her. She testified that the bat was "medium sized" and held her
hands out slightly wider than her shoulders. The Commonwealth presented a
picture of the bat to the jury but could not produce the actual bat itself.
Lanham argues that he was entitled to a missing evidence instruction and that
the Commonwealth's failure to introduce the bat into evidence violated his right
to due process. More specifically, he contends that due to the bat's size and
lack of blood, as well as the absence of any internal injuries to Amy, the bat
was relevant to Amy's credibility. According to Lanham, "[t]he entire case
rested on the credibility of the girls, and mainly that of [Amy]."
"In order to establish a due process violation, the evidence must either be
intentionally destroyed, or destroyed inadvertently outside normal practices."
Tamme v. Commonwealth, 759 S.W.2d 51, 54 (Ky. 1988). "Furthermore, the
lost evidence must 'possess an exculpatory value that was apparent before it
was destroyed."' Id. (citing California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479, 489 (1984)).
The photograph of the bat that was presented to the jury contained a
measuring device that was situated alongside the bat in order to demonstrate
scale. However, the units of measure are difficult to discern from that photo.
During deliberations, the jury posed the question: "how many centimeters are
in one inch?" Lanham claims that this is a clear indication that the jury was
confused as to the bat's dimensions. The court responded to the jury: "you
have all the evidence that you are going to receive in this matter."
Lanham also cites the trial testimony of Dr. Lisa Fitzer, who testified at
trial concerning her sexual assault examination of Amy. Dr. Fitzer testified
that Amy had a "normal exam." In response to questioning by defense counsel,
however, Dr. Fitzer also testified that she would not necessarily expect to see
physical signs that the bat was inserted into Amy's vagina. It is also
noteworthy that Amy's examination occurred almost one month after the
allegation of sexual abuse. In referencing female child patients generally, Dr.
Fitzer testified that "time passes, the body heals, and [the patients] usually
look pretty good on the exam." Forensic evidence was also introduced
indicating that the bat contained Amy and Lanham's DNA.
During a hearing on the missing evidence issue, which occurred during
trial, the Commonwealth introduced the testimony of Abigail Freedman. M
Freedman is the civilian supervisor of the Louisville Metro Police Department
("LMPD") property room. She testified that the bat and two cigar tubes were
logged into the property room and were not logged out. Ms. Freedman further
testified that all three of those items, the bat and two cigar tubes, were in the
property room but could not be located. Like the miniature bat, the evidence
presented at trial indicated that Lanham used a cigar tube to penetrate Amy
vaginally. One of his rape convictions involved the bat and another involved
the cigar tubes.
Although the failure of the LMPD and the Commonwealth to ascertain
the location of the bat may have been negligent, Lanham has failed to provide
any evidence that the bat was "intentionally destroyed, or
destroyed inadvertently outside normal practices." Tamme, 759 S.W.2d at 54
(citation omitted). Moreover, Lanham has failed to present convincing evidence
that the bat possessed "exculpatory value that was apparent before it was
destroyed[,]" or in this case, misplaced. Id. See also Swan v. Commonwealth,
384 S.W.3d 77, 90 (Ky. 2012) ("Speculation is not exculpation as required by
Tamme and Trombetta . . ."). As previously stated, the Commonwealth
presented evidence that the bat contained Amy and Lanham's DNA. Of
course, this proof is not exculpatory.
Furthermore, the two cigar tubes were also missing from the physical
evidence that was presented to the jury. Yet, Lanham did not take issue with
the absence of those items. Therefore, the jury was presented with additional
evidence that the bat was used in the manner in which Amy testified, and that
items other than the bat were also used in a similar manner. Both of these
facts would have bolstered Amy's credibility regarding her testimony that
Lanham used the bat to penetrate her in a sexual manner. There was no due
process violation here.
Missing Evidence Instruction
Similar to our preceding due process analysis, any negligence or
inadvertence on the part of the Commonwealth or the LMPD negates a finding
of bad faith. Ordway v. Commonwealth, 391 S.W.3d 762, 793 (Ky. 2013)
("[w]hen it is established that the evidence was lost due to mere negligence or
inadvertence, which, in effect, negates a finding of bad faith, the missing
instruction should not be given.") (citations omitted). Lanham has failed to
present evidence that the alleged omissions of the Commonwealth and/or the
LMPD in failing to present the bat at trial were intentional or done in bad faith.
Nor does his unsupported claim of "extreme negligence" satisfy this standard.
Therefore, a missing evidence instruction was not warranted.
, Fifth Amendment Claim
For his next assignment of error, Lanham raises two alleged violations of
his right not to testify against himself that is preserved by the Fifth
Amendment of the federal constitution„ as well as Kentucky law. KRS 421.225.
First, he claims that, during voir dire, the prosecutor impermissibly referenced
the possibility that Lanham may choose not to testify during trial. He also
asserts that the jury instructions impermissibly commented on his right not to
testify against himself by drawing undue attention to that issue.
During voir dire, the prosecutor informed the venire panel that "if the
defendant decides not to testify you can't consider it." She then asked the
panel if everyone understood and agreed that "it's ok if he doesn't testify."
Lanham's trial counsel moved to discharge the panel, which the court denied.
Lanham does not develop his argument here beyond a facial claim that the
prosecutor's statements constituted error. However, there was no error here.
It is permissible and, in fact, common for defense counsel to ask these types of
question during voir dire. And if defense counsel is permitted to ask these
questions, then so can the Commonwealth.
Lanham requested at trial that the court not instruct the jury on his Fifth
Amendment right against self-incrimination, and that failure to testify cannot
be construed as a presumption of guilt. In support, he cites RCr 9.54(3), which
The instructions shall not make any reference to a defendant's failure to testify unless so requested by the defendant, in which event the court shall give an instruction to the effect that a defendant is not compelled to testify and that the jury shall not draw any inference of guilt from the defendant's election not to testify and shall not allow it to prejudice the defendant in any way.
It appears that Lanham's request not to include the instruction was based on
the prosecutor's previous statement concerning Lanham's decision not to
testify, which, at the time was merely hypothetical. Lanham asserts that his
reasoning for requesting that the court omit this instruction was a strategic
decision not to draw attention to the prosecutor's statement. The trial court
denied Lanham's request and the jury was presented with the contested
As Lanham correctly observes, this Court has previously acknowledged
that it can be a valid trial strategy not to instruct the jury on the defendant's
Fifth Amendment right not to testify. Thornton v. Commonwealth, 421 S.W.3d
372, 377 (Ky. 2013). In that case, the appellant argued that "manifest injustice
occurred because the trial court failed to sua sponte instruct the jury
concerning a defendant's right not to testify during the penalty phase of the
trial." Id. We held that appellant was not entitled to palpable error review of
that issue. Id. Unlike Thornton, however, the issue in the present case was
properly preserved, meaning that the court denied Lanham's explicit request
that the instruction be omitted. Thus, we must now decide as a matter of first
impression whether the court's denial of Lanham's request was error, and
whether such error requires reversal.
In Sargent v. Shaffer, we held that "a trial court's decision on whether to
instruct on a specific claim will be reviewed for abuse of discretion; the
substantive content of the jury instructions will be reviewed de novo." 467
S.W.3d 198, 204 (Ky. 2015). Here, the issue is whether the trial court erred in
authorizing a specific instruction. Thus, we will review for an abuse of
discretion. RCr 9.54(3) is clear: "[t]he instructions shall not make any
reference to a defendant's failure to testify unless so requested by the
defendant . . . ." While some ambiguity may exist where a defendant fails, for
whatever reason, to request the instruction, no such instruction shall be given
when a defendant unequivocally requests that the instruction be omitted.
Although the trial court likely had the best interests of Lanham in mind when
it declined Lanham's request to omit the contested instruction, the court
nevertheless abused its discretion under our rules of criminal procedure. The
issue now turns to the impact of this error on the judgment.
Before we address whether the error here was harmless, we must first
address Lanham's claim that the trial court violated the Fifth and Fourteenth
Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. If so, then we must determine whether
the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Chapman v.
California, 386 U.S. 18, 23 (1967).
When faced with an identical issue, the U.S. Supreme Court held that
"the giving of such an instruction over the defendant's objection does not
violate the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination guaranteed by the
Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments." Lakeside v, Oregon, 435 U.S. 333, 340-41
(1978). Therefore, there is no violation of the federal constitution here. We will
proceed to determine whether the trial court's error was harmless. RCr 9.24.
There was extensive testimonial and forensic evidence presented by the
Commonwealth in support of its case. This included testimony from the
victims. Moreover, the only real "error" here was the trial court's insistence
that the jury be instructed not to prejudice Lanham for not testifying. There is
no way that the judgment was substantially swayed by this error. Winstead v.
Commonwealth, 283 S.W.3d 678, 688-89 (Ky. 2009). Thus, the trial court's
instruction to the jury concerning Lanham's Fifth Amendment right not to
testify was harmless.
Lanham also argues that a mistrial was required when the prosecutor
impermissibly attempted to define "reasonable doubt" during closing
arguments. Slide shows accompanied the prosecutor's oral argument to the
jury at closing. One slide was entitled "Reasonable Doubt." Another slide was
entitled "Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" and contained the following
question: "Ask yourself: Do you believe he did it?" That slide also provided
that "Proof does not need to eliminate all possible or imaginary doubt." The
prosecutor elaborated as follows: "But you do have to ask yourself, do I believe
that this happened? It does not need to eliminate all possible doubt or
imaginary doubt. It is not beyond a shadow of a doubt, or 100% sure."
Defense counsel objected to the prosecutor's comments and moved that
the panel be discharged. The court denied the motion, sustained the objection
defining reasonable doubt, and instructed the prosecutor to "move on from this
slide." We will review his motion to "discharge the panel" as a motion for
We must determine whether there was manifest necessity for a mistrial,
and specifically whether the alleged error here "prejudice[d] [Lanham's] right to
a fair trial." Grimes v. McAnulty, 957 S.W.2d 223, 224 (Ky. 1997) (citations
omitted). It is also critical to note that "a finding of manifest necessity is a
matter left to the sound discretion of the trial court." Commonwealth v. Scott,
12 S.W.3d 682, 684 (Ky. 2000). The trial court did not abuse its discretion
In support of his argument, Lanham cites Rodgers v. Commonwealth,
314 S.W.3d 745 (Ky. App. 2010). In that case, the Court of Appeals determined
that the prosecutor's closing argument regarding reasonable doubt was
inappropriate and required reversal, where the prosecutor told the jury that
"[I]f you know he did it, then this case was proven." Id. at 748. However, the
court also noted in Rodgers that "[o]ver time, our courts have narrowly refined
the rule to construe as harmless error a statement that reasonable doubt does
not mean 'beyond all doubt."' Id. at 748 (citing Johnson v. Commonwealth, 184
S.W.3d 544, 550-51 (Ky. 2005)). Unlike the present case, however, the Court
of Appeals reversed in Rodgers because, "the Commonwealth bodaciously
exceeded the Johnson limit that reasonable doubt does not mean beyond all
doubt[.]" Id. The prosecutor's statements here were far from "bodacious." In
fact, the comments at issue in the present case comport with the Johnson
limitation. See also, Brooks v. Commonwealth, 217 S.W.3d 219, 225 (Ky.
2007); Rogers v. Commonwealth, 315 S.W.3d 303, 308 (Ky. 2010).
Improper Testimony and Closing Argument
Lanham argues that the trial court erred by allowing impermissible
testimony concerning child sexual abuse syndrome. This issue is unpreserved.
Therefore, we will review for palpable error. RCr 10.26; McCleery v.
Commonwealth, 410 S.W.3d 597, 606 (Ky. 2013) (we will not reverse unless "it
can be determined that manifest injustice, i.e., a repugnant and intolerable
outcome, resulted from that error.").
During direct examination, the Commonwealth questioned LMPD
Detective Jennifer Boyer as follows: "In your experience as a crimes against
children detective, is it more common to have delayed disclosure cases or fresh
cases?" As previously stated, she responded that it is more common to have
delayed cases. The prosecutor also referenced Det. Boyer's testimony during
the Commonwealth's closing argument. The prosecutor stated as follows:
We heard from the detective, Detective Boyer, who has been a crimes against children unit detective for three years, that a delayed disclosure case is the norm in her unit. That's because
these children are normal. They believe they would get in trouble. They felt shame because of what they had done. And frankly that's why people prey on children.
Lanham correctly notes that we have previously held that using testimony
regarding the symptoms of child sexual abuse syndrome, even without
referring directly to the syndrome, is an impermissible way, to bolster the
prosecution's case. Blount v. Commonwealth, 392 S.W.3d 393, 396 (Ky. 2013).
However, Lanham cites no authority from this Court that has held such errors
to be palpable.
We recently addressed a similar issue in King v. Commonwealth, 472
S.W.3d 523, 527 (Ky. 2015). That case involved the trial court's admission of a
police detective's testimony wherein he stated that the victim's delay in
reporting the sexual abuse was not unusual because, in her experience with
more than 1,500 cases, it was "very rare" for children to immediately report
sexual abuse. Id. at 527. We held that, while obviously erroneous, the
detective's testimony did not result in manifest injustice. Id at 528.
Having reviewed the relevant portions of Detective Boyer's testimony, we
find no palpable error here. And while the contested statements made during
the Commonwealth's closing argument may have been error, we cannot
conclude that such error did not create the "probability of a different result or
error so fundamental as to threaten a defendant's entitlement to due process of
law." Martin v. Commonwealth, 207 S.W.3d 1, 3 (Ky. 2006). There was
extensive testimonial and forensic evidence presented by the Commonwealth in
support of its case. This included testimony from the victims. There was no
palpable error here.
Lastly, Lanham argues that his conviction should be reversed on the
basis of cumulative error. Under this limited doctrine, we will reverse only
when the "individual errors were themselves substantial, bordering, at least, on
the prejudicial." Brown v. Commonwealth, 313 S.W.3d 577, 631 (Ky. 2010).
Here, there is "insufficient harmless error to create a cumulative effect which
would mandate reversal for a new trial." Tamme v. Commonwealth, 973 S.W.2d
13, 40 (Ky. 1998).
Outcome: For the foregoing reasons, we hereby affirm the judgment of the Jefferson