The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday denied an appeal by 77-year-old Willard Clifton Land, who was convicted by a Sequatchie County jury in 2017 of second-degree murder in the October 2014 stabbing death of Kerry Summer Angel.
In his appeal, Land challenges the sufficiency of evidence leading to his conviction and contends trial Judge Justin C. Angel, no relation to the victim, erred in allowing prosecutors to question Land about prior acts of violence by himself and the victim when Land took the stand in his own defense. His trial was held in February 2017.
The prior acts allowed into testimony were "irrelevant and improper evidence" that likely swayed the jury toward a conviction, Land contends in the appeal.
Land's attorney, 12th Judicial District Public Defender Jeff Harmon, said he'd only just read Wednesday's opinion and hadn't notified Land yet of the ruling.
"The first thing we'll have to do is inform the client and get his take on it," Harmon said Thursday. "He'll have to decide whether to appeal it to the Tennessee Supreme Court. That would be, officially, the next available option."
On Oct. 11, 2014, Kerry Angel, 24, was found dead on her knees in a fetal position at a home on Keener Road, northwest of Dunlap, records show. She had been stabbed twice with a steak knife, one of the wounds being a fatal cut to her aorta, a major vessel connected to the heart, according to trial testimony. Land was taken into custody the day of the slaying and initially charged with criminal homicide, followed Jan. 26, 2015, by a grand jury indictment for first-degree murder. Land's eventual conviction at trial by a jury was on a lesser-included charge of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
At trial, Land testified in his own defense and some of that testimony was at issue in Wednesday's ruling.
In testimony about his contention that the victim was also armed with a knife at the time of the slaying, Land said in his appeal that he "only testified about the victim's prior violent acts to prove he had a reasonable fear when she wielded the knife."
Land "argues that by allowing the jury to hear 'the irrelevant and improper evidence' regarding [Land's] alleged threats and acts [that] 'more than likely affected the verdict and was not harmless'" to Land's case, documents state.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, while acknowledging Judge Angel erred in allowing the evidence about prior acts, ruled the error was harmless in the face of "overwhelming" evidence supporting Land's conviction for second-degree murder, documents state.
The killing in Sequatchie County was not Land's first slaying.
Land had also served a sentence of 15 to 20 years in California on a voluntary manslaughter conviction in the 1970s, authorities said during the initial investigation.
Land is being held at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction. TDOC records show Land's sentence started Oct. 14, 2014, and expires Dec. 6, 2047.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.