Supreme Court Upholds Middlebrooks Death Sentence

July 6, 1999

In a decision released Monday, a unanimous Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Donald Ray Middlebrooks, who was sentenced to death for torturing and murdering a 14 year-old Nashville boy in 1987. The court rejected alleged numerous constitutional violations raised by the defendant.

“We have considered the entire record in this cause and find that the sentence of death was not imposed in any arbitrary fashion and that the evidence supports the jury’s finding that the aggravating circumstance outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt,” Chief Justice Riley Anderson wrote for the court.

Middlebrooks was sentenced to death twice for the murder of Kerrick Majors. His first sentence was overturned by the Court in 1992 because one of two aggravating factors found by jurors - that the victim was killed in the commission of a felony - duplicated the offense of felony murder and failed to narrow the class of death-eligible defendants as required under the Tennesee Constitution. Jurors had also found that the killing was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel in that it involved torture or depravity of mind.”

After a second sentencing hearing, Middlebrooks again received a death sentence and appealed. The unanimous Court held that the “heinous, atrocious or cruel” aggravating factor on which jurors based the sentence was constitutional; that the prosecutor’s closing argument did not violate Middlebrooks’ right to due process; and that the sentence of death was not disproportionate.

Middlebrooks, 24 at the time of the crime, his wife, Tammy Middlebrooks, 17, and a friend, Roger Brewington, 16, chased the victim and his friends from a makeshift flea market in Nashville. They grabbed Majors, knocked him down and dragged him into a wooded area. The victim, who was 4'11" tall and weighed 112 pounds, was tortured for several hours. An “X” was carved into his chest, he was force to drink urine, burned, raped with a stick, beaten with brass knuckles, and stabbed to death. In a confession, Middlebrooks said the victim was crying and pleaded that he wanted to “go to school and get an education.” The defendants, who were white, also used racial epithets toward Majors, who was black.

“Middlebrooks by his own admission fully participated in the capture of Kerrick Majors and in the infliction of severe physical and mental pain to the victim by acts of unimaginable cruelty, despite the young victim’s pleas for his life,” Anderson wrote. “Finally, after three to four hours of repeated sadistic acts, Middlebrooks stabbed the victim.”

Brewington, tried as an adult, was not eligible for the death penalty because of his age. He received consecutive sentences of life, 40 years and 35 years. Tammy Middlebrooks pled guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In another death penalty case, the Supreme Court granted the state’s application to appeal a decision by the Court of Criminal Appeals ordering a new trial and sentencing hearing for death row inmate Sylvester Smith. The Court of Criminal Appeals found that Smith’s attorney was deficient for failing to adequately investigate his client’s competency, sanity and mental retardation, rendering the trial and sentencing hearings fundamentally unfair.

The Supreme Court also granted a review of one issue raised by Smith in his response to the state’s application to appeal. The court will consider whether Smith’s rights were violated by the prosecution’s failure to disclose an alleged deal with a witness in exchange for his testimony against Smith.

Smith was sentenced to death for the 1989 Memphis murder of Olive Brewer. Smith beat the elderly widow, cut her throat and stole her jewelry and other items. His fingerprints and a bloody knife identified by Smith’s sister were found in the victim’s home.