Gerald Powers was sentenced to death by the State of Tennessee for a robbery murder. According to court documents the victim, Shannon Sanderson, was arriving home after winning big at a casino when she was ambushed by Gerald Powers and murdered. Gerald Powers would be arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.
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On April 18, 1996, the victim, Shannon Sanderson, spent the evening gambling at Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall in Tunica, Mississippi. She originally planned to spend her evening at the casino with her husband, Robert Sanderson, to celebrate his birthday. However, an argument occurred between the couple. After leaving her children with their paternal grandparents at approximately 6:30 p.m., Mrs. Sanderson departed for Tunica alone.
Shannon Sanderson played blackjack most of the night and won $5,000. She cashed in her chips shortly after 3:00 a.m. on April 19, 1996, receiving her winnings in one-hundred dollar bills. She was then escorted to her car by a Sam’s Town security officer and began the fifty-six mile drive back to Memphis to pick up her children.
At around 4:45 a.m., Shannon Sanderson’s former father-in-law, Edward Holland, awoke to the sound of barking dogs. He looked outside and saw Mrs. Sanderson bending over beside her car. He heard her say, “Don’t-don’t” and thought she was talking to her husband. By the time Mr. Holland dressed and went outside, Mrs. Sanderson was gone, but her car remained in the driveway.
At the same time, the Hollands’ next-door neighbors, William and Anna Dillon, were also awakened by the barking. Mr. Dillon looked out his window and saw a person wearing a red baseball cap crouched in the Hollands’ driveway near Mrs. Sanderson’s car. Mrs. Dillon heard a scream and a thud. When she looked out her living room window, she saw a car parked at the curb with its dome light on. She saw a person behind the steering wheel of the car lean over the seat and push something down in the back. The person then drove away at a high rate of speed.
Another neighbor, Johnnie Rose, was returning from work around 4:30 a.m. when he saw Mrs. Sanderson’s car drive by his house. A second vehicle followed her. The vehicle was dark-colored and shaped like a Chevrolet Beretta. He watched the second car turn down his street, turn around in a driveway, and park in front of the Hollands’ house. When he was later shown a photograph of the maroon Beretta owned by Powers’ wife, he stated that the car in the photograph “looked like” the car he had seen following Mrs. Sanderson.
At approximately 6:40 a.m. on April 19, 1996, Alonzo Jeans, a school bus driver, was heading north on Highway 301 near Eudora, Mississippi. He saw a white male backing into the driveway of an abandoned house. In the ten years he had been driving this bus route, he had never seen anyone coming from or going to that house. Mr. Jeans was later shown a photograph of the maroon Beretta owned by Powers’ wife. He confirmed that the car in the photograph was the one he had seen in the driveway.
At approximately 9:30 a.m. on April 19, 1996, Powers returned to his Clarksdale, Mississippi home in his wife’s maroon Beretta, after a night of gambling in Tunica. He was wearing the same yellow shirt, blue jeans, red baseball cap, blue denim jacket, and white tennis shoes that he had worn the night before. According to his wife, Sharon Powers, he was in a good mood, but he was also “kind of wired up.” He appeared nervous and kept looking out the blinds. Powers told his wife that he had won a large amount of money at the casino and gave her a one-hundred dollar bill from the stack he had in his wallet. Mrs. Powers also noticed that her husband had washed her car and had cleaned and vacuumed its interior.
Mrs. Powers became suspicious and accused her husband of having an affair. After repeated questioning, Powers confessed to kidnapping, robbing, and killing a woman he had seen playing blackjack at Sam’s Town the night before. He described in specific detail how he watched the woman play blackjack from the second floor balcony of the casino, followed her home, and abducted her from her driveway. He drove her approximately forty miles to an abandoned house in Mississippi, stopping at one point to move her from the back seat of the car to the trunk. He then stole her jewelry as well as $5,000 in cash. After killing the woman, he threw her purse and his gun into the river behind the site where the Splash Casino had been located. Powers also told his wife that a school bus driver may have seen him at the abandoned house and that a neighbor may have seen him take Mrs. Sanderson from her driveway. He did not believe that either person could identify him.
That afternoon, Powers visited his neighbor, Margaret York, and asked her to provide him with an alibi for the night of April 18, 1996. Laughing, Ms. York agreed to say that he had been with her as long as he “didn’t kill anybody.” According to Ms. York, Powers’ expression did not change when she made this remark, and he left shortly thereafter.
The next evening, Powers and his wife saw a television news report of the victim’s abduction. The report described the perpetrator as a man wearing a red baseball cap and driving a maroon Beretta. After hearing the report, Powers packed a bag and left home in his wife’s car. Before leaving, he told his wife to tell anyone who asked that he was visiting his mother in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He also told his wife that there was some money buried in the backyard. Soon after he left, Mrs. Powers called the police and told them that her husband may have been involved in Mrs. Sanderson’s abduction. However, she did not inform the authorities about his confession.
Powers returned a week later. He retrieved some of the money he had buried and told his wife where he had hidden Mrs. Sanderson’s jewelry. As his wife watched, he wrote a note stating that he was leaving because he was not happy with his marriage.
On May 9, 1996, the badly decomposed body of Shannon Sanderson was discovered in a storage room at the back of the abandoned house on Highway 301 in Eudora, Mississippi. The body was clad in the same clothing Mrs. Sanderson had been wearing the night she disappeared. Her jewelry was missing. An autopsy disclosed that Mrs. Sanderson had died from a single gunshot wound to the right side of the head. An examination of the skull revealed that she had also suffered at least one major blow to her face that had knocked out her upper right front tooth, chipped another tooth, and fractured her jaw and other facial bones.
On May 22, 1996, Powers was stopped by an Immigration and Naturalization Services (“INS”) agent in Hebronville, Texas, after making a suspicious turn in an apparent attempt to avoid a checkpoint. When ordered to step out of the vehicle, Powers pulled a knife on the agent. The agent was able to subdue Powers. Upon arrest, the agent discovered fourteen one-hundred dollar bills in Powers’ pockets. Powers was on parole for a prior offense at the time of his arrest.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) secured the vehicle at the checkpoint and learned that Sharon Powers was its registered owner. With Mrs. Powers’ consent, the FBI searched the Beretta and found a black wool fiber in the back seat that was consistent with the victim’s clothing. Subsequently, the FBI interviewed Mrs. Powers. She eventually informed investigators of her husband’s confession and led them to the B & W Lounge where Mrs. Sanderson’s jewelry was recovered. The jewelry was wrapped in pink plastic wrap that matched wrap from Powers’ home. Officers also searched the Splash Casino site, but they did not find Mrs. Sanderson’s purse or the murder weapon.
The State also introduced video clips chronologically compiled from Sam’s Town surveillance cameras operating on the night and early morning hours of April 18-19, 1996. The videotape showed a person wearing white tennis shoes standing in an area overlooking the blackjack table where Mrs. Sanderson was gambling. The tape then recorded Mrs. Sanderson leaving the casino. The person from the second floor balcony followed her approximately thirty seconds later.
Powers called only one witness, Rebecca Coradini, who lived near the Holland residence. Ms. Coradini testified that she was standing on her front porch shortly after 4:00 a.m. on April 19, 1996, when she saw a van drive by, turn around, and come back. She then saw Mrs. Sanderson’s car drive by, followed by a little maroon car driven by an older Caucasian man, who resembled the victim’s husband. Ms. Coradini had seen Mr. Sanderson on television following the abduction.
At the conclusion of the evidence, the jury convicted Powers of aggravated robbery and first degree felony murder in the perpetration of robbery. During the sentencing phase of the trial, the State sought to prove three aggravating circumstances: 1) the defendant had been previously convicted of one or more felonies wherein the statutory elements involve the use of violence to the person; 2) the murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with, or preventing a lawful arrest or prosecution; and 3) the murder was knowingly committed, solicited, directed, or aided by the defendant while he was committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing after having committed a kidnapping. See Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(2), (6), and (7) (Supp.1996).
The State presented, over defense counsel’s objection, facts relating to Powers’ prior felony convictions. First, Emily Dodson testified that in 1979, in Rutherford County, Tennessee, Powers followed her home one night. As she was getting out of the car, Powers jumped into the car and held a knife to her throat. They struggled, and Powers hit her with a crescent wrench. Ms. Dodson, however, successfully escaped to her house. Powers was apprehended shortly thereafter, and Ms. Dodson identified him as her attacker. Powers subsequently pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault of Ms. Dodson.
Karen Cannon then testified that in October 1980, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, she was giving Powers a ride when he pulled a knife and broke her nose with the handle. Despite being held at knifepoint, Ms. Cannon managed to drive to the county jail where she alerted the authorities to her predicament by honking the horn. Powers was apprehended, and Ms. Cannon later identified him as her assailant. Powers subsequently pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault of Ms. Cannon.
The State next introduced testimony of Captain Sammy Magee, an officer with the Sheriff’s Office of Hinds County, Mississippi. Captain Magee testified about his investigation of Powers’ robbery and aggravated assault of Clyo Griffin in June 1984. According to Captain Magee, Powers entered Ms. Griffin’s home, beat her with an iron skillet, and stole her jewelry, credit cards, and a pistol. Powers hid the jewelry and pistol in a plastic bag and buried them. He later pleaded guilty to robbery and aggravated assault of Ms. Griffin.
The State also introduced a copy of the judgment reflecting Powers’ guilty plea and conviction for assault with a dangerous weapon on the INS agent in Hebronville, Texas, in May 1996.
Finally, the State introduced the victim impact testimony of Caroline Holland, the paternal grandmother of Shannon Sanderson’s three children. Ms. Holland testified that the death of Mrs. Sanderson had been very traumatic for the children and that they suffered a “devastating feeling of terror” that people would get lost and never come back. She also stated that the children had trouble sleeping and missed their mother every day.
The only witness for the defense was Powers’ first wife, Pamela Bigelow, who had married him while they were seniors in high school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Ms. Bigelow related that Powers came to the United States from Taiwan when he was ten years old. Powers’ mother was a native of Taiwan. His stepfather was a resident of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who had met Powers’ mother while stationed with the military in Taiwan. According to Ms. Bigelow, Powers was a good student and athlete, but he had trouble communicating with his mother. Ms. Bigelow and Powers were married for four years and had two children. She divorced Powers because she “outgrew him,” but she stated that Powers possessed “good traits.” She described Powers as quiet and withdrawn, but very polite. She testified that Powers had never been physically or emotionally abusive to her. She admitted, however, that he had used drugs and alcohol while they were married. She described Powers as a “broken man” and pleaded for his life so that he could meet his two grandchildren.
Based on this proof, the jury found that the State had proven all three aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, the jury found that the State had proven that the aggravating circumstances outweighed any mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, the jury sentenced Powers to death for the murder of Shannon Sanderson.