Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence For 2015 Murder of Convenience Store Employee

December 7, 2021

In an opinion released today, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for Urshawn Miller who was convicted of murdering an employee of the convenience store that he attempted to rob in Jackson, Tennessee. 

On the night of November 25, 2015, Mr. Miller entered the Bull Market wearing black clothing, gray gloves, and a white face covering. He pointed a gun at the twenty-four-year-old clerk, Ahmad Dhalai, and demanded money from the cash register. Mr. Miller fired an initial shot that barely missed Mr. Dhalai, demanded money a second time, then fatally shot Mr. Dhalai in the back of the head as the victim slowly turned to walk away. Mr. Miller fired a shot in the direction of another employee, Lawrence Austin, before unsuccessfully attempting to open the cash register himself. He then fled the store, and Mr. Dhalai died moments later. The entire encounter was captured on the store’s surveillance cameras. First-responding officers tracked Mr. Miller to a nearby wooded area where he was arrested.

A Madison County jury convicted Mr. Miller of first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder for fatally shooting Mr. Dhalai. The jury also convicted Mr. Miller of the attempted second-degree murder of Mr. Austin and of attempted especially aggravated robbery, aggravated assault, employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, evading arrest, and resisting arrest. The jury imposed the death penalty for the first-degree murder convictions. The trial court later merged the felony murder conviction into the premeditated murder conviction, and it imposed an effective thirty-year sentence for the remaining convictions to run concurrently with the death sentence. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the convictions and sentences on appeal but vacated the application of the felony murder aggravating circumstance as to the felony murder conviction. 

The Supreme Court is required to review all death penalty cases, so Mr. Miller’s case was automatically appealed. The Court concluded that the trial court properly ruled on challenges to certain jurors for cause, that the evidence was sufficient to establish the defendant’s guilt of the convicted offenses, that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the State to introduce a video recording of Mr. Miller’s prior aggravated robbery during the penalty phase, and that the death penalty generally, and lethal injection specifically, do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Under the Court’s mandatory review of Mr. Miller’s death sentence, the Court determined that the evidence presented by the State supported all of the aggravating circumstances applied by the jury, and the Court agreed with the jury that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances in this case. The Court reinstated the application of the felony murder aggravating circumstances to the felony murder conviction. The Court also determined that the death sentence was not disproportionate to sentences imposed in other similar cases. It, therefore, confirmed the sentence of death.

Justice Lee, writing separately, agreed that Mr. Miller’s convictions should be affirmed but dissented from the Court’s decision upholding the death penalty. In her view, executing Mr. Miller would violate his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. A sentence is cruel and unusual, and thus constitutionally prohibited, when it is excessive or disproportionate. As the most severe and irreversible punishment, the death penalty should be imposed only in the rarest of cases—those that are the “worst of the bad.” While reprehensible, Mr. Miller’s crime did not involve more than one victim, torture, depravity, or other especially cruel conduct. Most defendants like Mr. Miller in similar first-degree murder cases, including capital cases, have been sentenced to life or life in prison without parole rather than death. Thus, Mr. Miller’s death sentence is excessive and disproportionate considering the nature of the crime and the defendant. For this reason, Justice Lee dissented from the imposition of the death penalty and concluded that Mr. Miller should serve the rest of his life in prison.

To read the majority opinion in State v. Urshawn Miller, authored by Chief Justice Roger A. Page, and the separate concurring and dissenting opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.