Home / Fulltext Opinions / Supreme Court of Virginia / REID v. COMMONWEALTH OF VA





November 6, 1998

Record No. 981020





Ray W. Grubbs, Judge

Present: All the Justices



On December 3, 1997, James Edward Reid pled
guilty to three charges: (1) capital murder of Annie V. Lester
during the commission of attempted rape and/or attempted robbery
in violation of Code Sect.  18.2-31; (2) attempted rape in
violation of Code Sect.  18.2-67.5; and (3) attempted
robbery in violation of Code Sect.  18.2-58.
[1] After accepting the pleas and hearing
evidence about the commission of the offenses, the trial court
found Reid guilty as charged.

During the subsequent sentencing proceedings,
the trial court heard evidence from both sides and received a
pre-sentence report.
[2] The trial court then sentenced Reid to
death for the capital murder conviction and imposed two ten-year
sentences for the attempted rape and attempted robbery
convictions. In imposing the death penalty pursuant to Code
Sects.  19.2-264.2 and -264.4(C), the trial court found that
Reid’s conduct in committing capital murder was
"outrageously vile, horrible and inhuman in that it involved
such aggravated battery to the victim, that is . . .
qualitatively and quantitatively . . . more culpable
than the minimum necessary to accomplish an act of murder."

On appeal, Reid contends that the trial court
disregarded certain mitigating evidence and therefore erred in
imposing the death penalty.
[3] Upon consideration of the record, briefs, and argument
of counsel, we find no error in the judgment of the trial court.
Further, upon conducting our review pursuant to Code Sect.
 17-110.1(C), we conclude that the sentence of death in this
case was not imposed "under the influence of passion,
prejudice or any other arbitrary factor" and is not
excessive or disproportionate. Accordingly, we will affirm the
judgment of the trial court.


"Since the Commonwealth prevailed in the
trial court, we review the evidence and all reasonable inferences
arising therefrom in the light most favorable to the
Commonwealth." Graham v. Commonwealth, 250 Va. 79,
81, 459 S.E.2d 97, 98, cert. denied, 516 U.S. 997 (1995)
(citing Swann v. Commonwealth, 247 Va. 222, 225, 441
S.E.2d 195, 198, cert. denied, 513 U.S. 889 (1994)).

In the afternoon on October 12, 1996,
Lester’s cousin went to Lester’s house, and after
finding the front screen door open, entered the house, discovered
Lester’s body on the floor at the end of a bed, and observed
debris all over the bedroom floor. The cousin left and went to a
relative’s house to call for emergency help, but then
returned to Lester’s home and was there when the police

Before disturbing the crime scene, the police
made a video recording of the inside of Lester’s house. The
tape was admitted into evidence, and Officer Tommy Lawson
narrated what was being seen as the trial court watched it. Blood
was present throughout Lester’s home on such items as the
kitchen floor, the back door and back door trim, the
refrigerator, a can of milk, a wig lying on the kitchen floor,
the door leading from the kitchen into a television room,
scissors lying on a chair in the television room, the bed and
headboard in the bedroom where Lester’s body was found, the
cord of an electric heating pad that was under Lester’s
head, and the seat of a chair beside her body. Several items of
Lester’s clothing had blood on them, including a sweater, a
slip, and a bra that was still fastened in the back but that
"[was] broken in some fashion in the front." The
bedroom was in complete disarray with dresser drawers on the
floor and bed and clothing strewn all around. A wine bottle was
sitting on the floor at the foot of the bed.

William Massello, the Assistant Chief Medical
Examiner for Western Virginia, performed an autopsy on Lester. He
described Lester as an elderly, slender, and "somewhat
emaciated" female. During the autopsy, Massello observed 14
stab wounds to the front of Lester’s neck and three stab
wounds to her chin, one of which went into the jugular vein on
the left side of her neck. There were also five stab wounds to
the front of Lester’s chest. Massello testified that several
of these wounds went through the chest wall into Lester’s
left lung and into her heart. In Massello’s opinion, the
most rapidly lethal wounds were four of the stab wounds to the
chest, which caused bleeding into the chest cavity and, in turn,
caused Lester to die rapidly. According to Massello, all the stab
wounds had a Z-shaped or H-shaped configuration consistent with
injuries caused by two blades superimposed on one another or
scissors blades.

In addition to the stab wounds, Massello
observed multiple lacerations and bruises on Lester’s body.
Some of these injuries on the top of Lester’s head and face
were caused either by Lester’s head being struck with a
blunt instrument, or by her head striking another object such as
a door or wall. Lester had lacerations on the right and left
sides of her face and linear crush marks on the right side of her
[4] Finally, Lester sustained a fracture
of the hyoid bone,
[5] resulting either from the force of
strangulation or from being struck in that area with an object.

The evidence linking Reid to the commission of
these crimes consists, in part, of testimony from witnesses who
saw Reid at or in the vicinity of Lester’s house on the day
of her murder. Around 10:30 a.m. on October 12, Reid secured a
ride to Lester’s house with Haywood Alexander and Robert
Smith. Reid’s stated purpose for going to Lester’s
house was to do some work there.
[6] En
route to Lester’s home, Reid asked Alexander and Smith to
stop at a store where Reid purchased a bottle of wine. They then
proceeded to Lester’s house, and upon arriving there, Reid
exited the vehicle and walked around to the back of the house
with his bottle of wine. Alexander and Smith then left.

Around 4:30 p.m. on that same day, George
Eanes, who worked at Eanes Body Shop located across the street
from Lester’s house, observed Reid walking across the street
from the direction of Lester’s house. Reid approached Eanes
and asked for a ride. Eanes explained to Reid that he was working
on his vehicle and could not give him a ride at that time. When
asked at the trial to describe Reid’s appearance, Eanes
stated that "[Reid] had a lot of blood on him and he was
[7] After seeing the blood on Reid’s clothing, Eanes
asked Reid how he got in that condition. According to Eanes, Reid
responded by referring to a former lover and stating that
"he did it for love."

George W. Eanes, father of George Eanes, also
saw Reid at the body shop and confirmed that Reid appeared to
have been in a fight because he had blood all over him.
Eanes’ father stated that Reid smelled like a
"brewery" but that he, nevertheless, agreed to give
Reid a ride home. During that drive, Reid explained to
Eanes’ father that some person had given him some drugs and
that they had gotten into an argument or fight.

The results of forensic tests, fingerprint
analyses, and handwriting comparisons also place Reid at
Lester’s house on the day in question. Forensic tests
established that Reid’s DNA matched a stain abstracted from
a cigarette butt found in Lester’s home. A blood stain
abstracted from the same cigarette butt was consistent with the
DNA profile of Lester and Reid. In addition, the forensic
scientist who conducted these tests testified that Lester’s
DNA was consistent with blood recovered from Reid’s jacket.
Finally, two of Reid’s fingerprints were identified in blood
found on the handset of a rotary telephone in Lester’s
bedroom, and Reid’s handwriting was found on some papers
recovered in Lester’s house.

The Commonwealth presented all the foregoing
evidence during the guilt phase of Reid’s trial but also
relied upon it during the sentencing phase. In addition, the
Commonwealth presented testimony from Robert D. O’Neal, a
probation officer. O’Neal interviewed Reid while preparing
the pre-sentence report. During that interview, Reid stated to
O’Neal that he did not remember anything about the incident.
According to O’Neal, Reid believes that he "blacked
out" because he remembers being at Lester’s house prior
to the offense but does not recall anything that transpired from
that point until he awoke at home and found blood on his

In mitigation, Reid presented evidence from
three medical experts: Dr. Pogos H. Voskanian, a forensic
psychiatrist; Dr. Stephen Herrick, a forensic psychologist; and
Dr. Randy Thomas, a clinical psychologist. Each of these
witnesses discussed Reid’s medical and psychiatric
conditions that, in their opinion, affect Reid’s ability to
form the intent to commit a crime and that have caused Reid to
experience "blackout" periods during which he is
basically out of control and engages in disorganized, aggressive
behavior toward an unlikely target.

Three factors were significant to these medical
experts in formulating their respective opinions. First, Reid
suffered a major head trauma as a result of an automobile
accident in 1968 and was in a coma for at least five days. The
damaged area of Reid’s brain was the left temporal lobe and
part of the frontal lobe, which affects an individual’s
personality and ability to control impulses. Thus, Reid does not
resist acting on his impulses. Second, Reid developed a seizure
disorder shortly after the head injury. According to Dr.
Voskanian, Reid’s head trauma triggered the seizure
disorder. Because Reid has been noncompliant with taking his
medication to control the seizures, he has experienced repeated
seizures that have, in turn, progressively caused more damage to
his brain. Finally, Reid has a family history of alcoholism, has
abused alcohol since age 15, and has had numerous admissions to
both psychiatric hospitals and alcohol abuse rehabilitation
centers. Because of Reid’s brain injury, he is more
vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and likely to become
intoxicated more quickly than another person. In addition, Reid
is a binge drinker, meaning that he has not built up a tolerance
for the effects of alcohol.

Dr. Voskanian opined that Reid experiences
"blackout" episodes when he is intoxicated. During
these episodes, Reid may not remember what he did five minutes
ago but would retain his memory for established information such
as his name and residence. Dr. Voskanian further opined that Reid
was in "an impaired state of consciousness" when he
left Lester’s house because Reid said things that could not
be understood and did nothing to conceal his bloody clothing.

In summary, Dr. Voskanian stated that
Reid’s head trauma, seizure disorder, long history of
drinking, and serious medical conditions,
[8] could
"have a significant impact on Mr. Reid’s ability to
think clearly, or perform intentional acts." Dr. Voskanian
also opined that these conditions could cause violent outbursts
that Reid would not remember if he were intoxicated. However, all
three medical experts believed that Reid would not be susceptible
to these violent outbursts if he were in a structured setting
where he would not have access to alcohol.

Some of Reid’s family members also
testified that Reid is a different person when he is intoxicated.
His ex-wife, sister, and mother described Reid as a kind and
considerate person when he is sober, but acknowledged that Reid
has violent episodes during periods of intoxication. They also
confirmed that Reid cannot remember what he does when he is
intoxicated. For example, his ex-wife testified that Reid once
stabbed her when he was intoxicated but that he had no
recollection of the incident the next morning.


Under Code Sect.  19.2-264.4(B), facts in
mitigation that a trial court can consider in deciding whether to
impose a sentence of death or life imprisonment may include the

  • (ii) the capital felony was
    committed while the defendant was under the
    influence of extreme mental or emotional
    disturbance, . . . [and] (iv) at the
    time of the commission of the capital felony, the
    capacity of the defendant to appreciate the
    criminality of his conduct or to conform his
    conduct to the requirements of law was
    significantly impaired.
  • On appeal, Reid argues that the trial court
    erred by not considering evidence establishing these mitigating
    factors. Specifically, Reid contends that the court failed to
    address evidence showing Reid’s lack of planning or
    premeditation, lack of memory of the incident, and behavior
    subsequent to the commission of the crimes. Reid also asserts
    that the trial court failed to consider the uncontradicted
    medical testimony regarding his medical and psychiatric
    impairments. According to Reid, this evidence demonstrates not
    only that he was unaware of what he was doing at Lester’s
    home on the day in question but also that he cannot now remember
    anything about the incident. Thus, Reid argues that his conduct
    in committing the murder of Lester cannot be deemed
    "vile" and that the trial court, therefore, erred by
    imposing a sentence of death based on the "vileness"

    Reid’s arguments can be distilled into a
    single complaint that the trial court must not have considered
    his mitigating evidence since the court imposed the death
    penalty. Reid asserts that, since his evidence was uncontradicted
    and is not inherently improbable or inconsistent, it had to be
    accepted as true. Once that evidence was accepted as true, Reid
    contends that it negated the trial court’s finding of
    "vileness." In other words, Reid asserts that the trial
    court should have given controlling weight to his mitigating
    evidence. We do not agree.

    Following a 15-minute recess after the close of
    the evidence in the penalty phase, the trial court announced its
    sentencing decision and, in doing so, stated, "The Court has
    the duty to consider all such evidence, both favorable to you and
    unfavorable presented relative to this hearing in ascertaining
    whether the crime of which you have been convicted is so
    atrocious that the death sentence should be imposed." Thus,
    we conclude that the trial court did, in fact, consider
    Reid’s mitigating evidence.

    We have addressed this type of complaint on at
    least two previous occasions. First, in Correll v.
    , 232 Va. 454, 468, 352 S.E.2d 352, 360, cert.
    , 482 U.S. 931 (1987), the defendant argued, as does
    Reid, that the mitigating evidence was of such weight that the
    court could not have considered it and still sentenced him to
    death. The mitigating evidence in that case established that
    Correll had a troubled childhood and unfortunate home situation.
    Taking the view that such evidence tended to explain, but did not
    excuse, Correll’s commission of the capital murder, we
    concluded that "it did not require as a matter of law that
    the death penalty not be imposed." Id. We further
    stated that the fact-finder has a duty to consider mitigating
    evidence along with other evidence in determining the appropriate
    sentence but that the fact-finder is "not required to give
    controlling effect to the mitigating evidence." Id.
    at 468-469, 352 S.E.2d at 360.

    Similarly, in Murphy v. Commonwealth,
    246 Va. 136, 142, 431 S.E.2d 48, 52, cert. denied, 510
    U.S. 928 (1993), we addressed the defendant’s argument that
    the trial court had failed to consider fully the evidence in
    mitigation of the imposition of the death penalty. As in the
    present case, the trial court in Murphy stated on the
    record that it had considered all the evidence. Relying on our
    decision in Correll, we concluded that the trial court had
    "maturely, carefully, and calmly deliberated the full range
    of issues." Id.

    As in Correll and Murphy, the
    evidence upon which Reid relies is mitigating in that it shows
    "extenuating circumstances tending to explain, but not
    excuse, his commission of the crime." Correll, 232
    Va. at 468, 352 S.E.2d at 360 (quoting Coppola v. Commonwealth,
    220 Va. 243, 253, 257 S.E.2d 797, 804 (1979), cert. denied,
    444 U.S. 1103 (1980)). The trial court was not, however, required
    to give controlling weight to the mitigating evidence. Id.
    at 469, 352 S.E.2d at 360.

    Moreover, Reid’s mitigating evidence does
    not, as a matter of law, negate the trial court’s finding of
    "vileness." Reid stabbed Lester 22 times and inflicted
    other wounds on her head, face, hyoid bone, and arms. According
    to the medical examiner, four of the five stab wounds to
    Lester’s chest were fatal. From the presence of blood
    throughout Lester’s house, it can be inferred that Reid
    carried or dragged her body from the kitchen into the bedroom. At
    some point, he also removed her clothes and ransacked her

    Reid’s medical and psychiatric
    impairments, his periods of "blackout," his lack of
    memory regarding the acts he committed at Lester’s home, and
    his behavior subsequent to the incident when he made no attempt
    to hide either his presence at Lester’s home or his
    blood-covered clothing do not change the fact that the commission
    of this crime was "outrageously . . . vile,
    horrible or inhuman, in that it involved . . .
    aggravated battery" to Lester. Code Sects.  19.2-264.2
    and -264.4(C). It was "qualitatively and quantitatively
    . . . more culpable than the minimum necessary to
    accomplish an act of murder." Smith v. Commonwealth,
    219 Va. 455, 478, 248 S.E.2d 135, 149 (1978), cert. denied,
    441 U.S. 967 (1979). We have never held that the
    "vileness" factor under Code Sects.  19.2-264.2
    and –264.4(C) includes a requirement that a defendant’s
    mental state embrace the intent to commit an "outrageously
    or wantonly vile" murder, and we decline to do so now.
    "The number or nature of the batteries inflicted upon the
    victim is the essence of the test whether the defendant’s
    conduct ‘was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or
    inhuman in that it involved . . . an aggravated
    battery.’" Boggs v. Commonwealth, 229 Va. 501,
    521, 331 S.E.2d 407, 421 (1985), cert. denied, 475 U.S.
    1031 (1986) (quoting Code Sect.  19.2-264.2).



    Pursuant to Code Sect.  17-110.1(C)(1), we
    are required to determine whether the death sentence in this case
    was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or other
    arbitrary factors. Upon careful examination of the record, we
    find no evidence that any such factor was present or influenced
    the trial court’s sentencing decision. Indeed, Reid has not
    asserted that the imposition of the death penalty in this case
    was the result of passion or prejudice.

    We must also determine whether the sentence of
    death in this case is "excessive or disproportionate to the
    penalty imposed in similar cases." Code Sect.
     17-110.1(C)(2). In conducting this review, we have
    inspected the records of all capital cases presented to this
    Court including those cases in which the trial court imposed a
    life sentence instead of the death penalty. In complying with the
    directive in Code Sect.  17-110.1(C)(2) to compare
    "similar" cases, we have given particular attention to
    those cases in which the underlying felony predicates and the
    facts and circumstances surrounding the commission of the crimes
    were the same as those in this case. We have also focused on
    cases in which the death penalty was imposed solely on the basis
    of the "vileness" factor. However, our proportionality
    review does not require that a given capital murder case
    "equal in horror the worst possible scenario yet
    encountered." Turner v. Commonwealth, 234 Va. 543,
    556, 364 S.E.2d 483, 490, cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1017

    Based on this review, the Court concludes that
    Reid’s sentence of death is not excessive or
    disproportionate to sentences generally imposed in this
    Commonwealth for capital murders comparable to Reid’s murder
    of Lester. See, e.g. Fry v. Commonwealth,
    250 Va. 413, 463 S.E.2d 433 (1995), cert. denied, 517 U.S.
    1110 (1996) (11 gunshot wounds to victim’s head, chest, and
    abdomen; victim dragged down dirt road while alive); Barnes v.
    , 234 Va. 130, 360 S.E.2d 196 (1987), cert.
    , 484 U.S. 1036 (1988) (multiple gunshot wounds); Washington
    v. Commonwealth
    , 228 Va. 535, 323 S.E.2d 577 (1984), cert.
    , 471 U.S. 1111 (1985) (38 stab wounds to victim); Boggs,
    229 Va. 501, 331 S.E.2d 407 (victim stabbed in two places and
    struck on head and neck multiple times). As already stated, Reid
    inflicted 22 stab wounds upon the victim, four of which were
    lethal wounds to Lester’s chest, in addition to multiple
    other injuries. Reid committed these acts while carrying or
    dragging Lester’s body through her house and removing her

    For these reasons, we find no error in the
    imposition of the sentence of death, nor do we perceive any
    reason to commute the death sentence. Therefore, we will affirm
    the judgment of the trial court.





    [1] Reid entered the guilty pleas pursuant
    to North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1973).

    [2] The trial court conducted the first
    part of the penalty phase hearing on December 3, 1997,
    immediately after finding Reid guilty. The court reconvened the
    hearing on February 20, 1998.

    [3] Reid is before this Court for
    automatic review of his death sentence under Code Sect.

    Code Sect.  17-110.1 was repealed and
    replaced by Sect.  17.1-313, effective October 1, 1998.
    Because the parties briefed and argued this case under the
    provisions of Sect.  17-110.1, and because the relevant
    provisions remain unchanged in Sect.  17.1-313, we will cite
    to Sect.  17-110.1 in this opinion.

    [4] Massello opined that the can of milk
    found in Lester’s kitchen was the kind of instrument that
    could have caused some of the injuries to Lester’s head.

    [5] Hyoid bone is defined as "a bone
    or complex of bones situated at the base of the tongue and
    developed from the second and third visceral arches, supporting
    the tongue and its muscles . . . ." Webster’s Third New
    International Dictionary 1111 (1993).

    [6] Reid apparently had performed odd jobs
    for Lester on previous occasions and enjoyed discussing the Bible
    with her.

    [7] Reid had blood on his sleeve, shoes,
    pants, and front of his coat.

    [8] Reid underwent cardiac by-pass
    surgery. Several years after the surgery, Reid again had chest
    pains and suffered a myocardial infarction. Reid has also been
    diagnosed with lung cancer.