Jessie Dotson was sentenced to death by the State of Tennessee for six murders. According to court documents Jessie Dotson who recently released from prison would murder his brother and then to cover his crime would murder five others in the household including two young children. Jessie Dotson would be arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. This case was featured on 48 Hours
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The proof offered at the guilt phase of the defendant’s trial established that in March 2008, thirty-year-old Cecil Dotson, Sr. (“Cecil”),2 Cecil’s five children, ranging in age from nine years to two months, and Marissa Williams, Cecil’s twenty-seven-year-old fiancee and the mother of four of his children, were living at a home located at 722 Lester Street in Memphis, Tennessee. They had been living in the home for five or six months. Cecil worked as a maintenance man at an apartment complex in Memphis.
The defendant—Cecil’s brother—lived with their sister, Nicole Dotson (“Nicole”), in her apartment at Goodwill Village in Memphis and worked with their father, Jessie Dotson Sr. (“Jessie Sr.”), as a painter. The defendant had moved in with Nicole in August 2007, upon his release from prison. The defendant’s family referred to him as “Junior.”
On Saturday, March 1, 2008, Jessie Sr., the defendant, and William Waddell, Cecil’s and the defendant’s half brother, also known as “Fat,” went to Cecil’s Lester Street home to watch a televised University of Memphis basketball game with him.3 Ms. Williams and the five children were also present at the home during this time.4 The group was unable to watch the game because Cecil’s television could not receive the broadcast. Jessie Sr. left Cecil’s house around 6:00 or 6:30 p.m., and as he was leaving, he saw Cecil on the porch cleaning his grill and preparing to barbecue. He did not see Cecil or the defendant again that night and never again saw Cecil alive. Mr. Waddell left Cecil’s home at 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., and when he left, Cecil was still alive.
When Jessie Sr. arrived at Nicole’s apartment the next morning, Sunday, March 2, 2008, to pick up the defendant for work, the defendant was not there, and Nicole did not know where he was. Jessie Sr. asked Nicole to tell the defendant to contact him if he wanted to keep his job. Later that evening, the defendant called Jessie Sr. and explained that he had not called because his girlfriend, Sheila Jones, had hidden his cell phone after they argued. The defendant did not explain why he had missed work. When the defendant and Mr. Waddell went to dinner that evening, the defendant asked if Mr. Waddell wanted to pick up Cecil. Mr. Waddell had called Cecil numerous times on March 2nd but had not reached him, so they did not go by the Lester Street home.
The next day, Monday, March 3, 2008, the defendant rode to work with Jessie Sr. around 8:00 a.m., but they stopped working at 11:00 a.m. due to rain. Later that same day, the defendant called Jessie Sr., telling him that Nicole wanted him to drive by Cecil’s house because Ms. Smith, the mother of Cecil’s two-year-old son Cecil II, feared something was wrong. Ms. Smith had been unable to reach Cecil by telephone since the very early morning hours of Sunday, March 2, 2008, and no one had answered the door at the Lester Street home when she knocked around 3:00 p.m. that day. Ms. Smith said the door was partially open, and the radio was playing, but she did not see anyone or hear the children, although she could see the television just inside the door and the photographs on the wall across from the door. On the morning of March 3rd, Ms. Smith discovered that Cecil had not shown up for work and that his relatives had not heard from him. She still could not reach him by telephone. When she called Mr. Waddell at work numerous times expressing her concerns, he told her to call the police. She took his advice and called the police in the early evening and waited outside the Lester Street home for them to arrive.
Officer Randall Davis arrived first. As he walked in the front door, he could “smell the dead bodies.” The storm door was closed, but the interior door was partially open, and he could see a person’s foot lying on the floor inside. Entering the front door, Officer Davis discovered four adult bodies, later identified as Cecil, Ms. Williams, Hollis Seals, and twenty-two-year-old Shindri Roberson. All appeared to have sustained multiple gunshot wounds. Officer Davis did not check for vital signs because it was obvious to him that they were deceased.
Officer Davis, along with two other officers, continued through the house, searching for survivors and perpetrators, while another officer secured the front door. Officer Davis noticed blood throughout the house, but none of it appeared to be fresh. Officer Davis saw someone in the hallway bathroom and discovered nine-year-old C.J. in the bathtub with a knife stuck in his head. Officer Davis first believed that C.J. was deceased but then noticed the child’s eyes twitch. After alerting others he had found a survivor, Officer Davis continued clearing the home.
In a bedroom on the left side of the hallway (“bedroom two”), Officer Davis discovered four-year-old Cemario, who was deceased. In another bedroom (“bedroom one”), Officer Davis discovered two-year-old Cecil II and five-year-old Cedrick, both of whom appeared deceased to Officer Davis. Meanwhile, another officer located two-month-old Ceniyah, who was still alive, and carried her out of the house.5 The officers exited just as Memphis Fire Department personnel arrived, and Officer Davis let them know a survivor had been found in the bathroom.
Firefighter Jason Vosburgh testified that he “could smell the blood in the air” when he approached the house, describing it as “[a] thick, spoiled smell like it had been there a while.” Firefighter and emergency medical technician Daniel Moore testified that, although he was instructed to check the adult victims for signs of life, he did not actually touch them because it was obvious to him that they were deceased. Mr. Moore explained that “[j]ust by looking at them and just the horrific scene that was there with all the blood and everything, it was obvious that they had been down for a while.” He described the blood as “definitely old.”
When Mr. Vosburgh and a paramedic entered bedroom one, they discovered that, although Cecil II was deceased, Cedrick was still alive, so they carried him outside to an ambulance. During this time, Mr. Vosburgh was informed that another deceased victim was in the other bedroom. When he returned inside, Mr. Vosburgh and Mr. Moore were summoned to the bathroom, where firefighter Herbert Henley was attending to C.J. They removed C.J. from the bathtub and transported him to an ambulance outside. Mr. Henley recalled seeing cuts on C.J.’s face and a “sawzall blade” sticking out of the top of his head. He described the bathroom as “a mess” with “blood everywhere.” Mr. Moore testified that when he and Mr. Vosburgh entered the bloody bathroom, C.J. “turned his head and the next thing we saw was one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen, it was a knife stuck embedded in his skull and it was just stuck there. And it absolutely is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” In addition to the embedded knife, Mr. Moore observed puncture wounds on C.J.’s abdomen and multiple superficial cuts to his neck.
By the time firefighter and paramedic Patrick McDevitt reached the scene, the surviving victims had already been removed and were on their way to the hospital. Mr. McDevitt and his partner were tasked with confirming that the remaining victims were deceased. To do so, they touched each victim to check for a pulse or other vital signs and ran an ECG, which required them to move clothing and affix ECG strips. They returned the clothing to its original position when they finished. Mr. McDevitt noticed that the blood on each victim appeared to be dry.
Meanwhile, Memphis Police Department Deputy Director Toney Armstrong, a lieutenant with the Homicide Bureau at the time these murders occurred, learned of the homicides. He called Lieutenant Walter Davidson6 at home, assigned him to serve as case coordinator on the investigation, and instructed him to go to the scene. He told Lieutenant Davidson that six persons had been murdered and that three severely injured children were on their way to the hospital and not expected to survive. Not knowing the identity of the perpetrator and wanting to prevent any further attacks on the family, Deputy Director Armstrong and Lieutenant Davidson decided to quarantine the surviving children at the hospital and not release their identities. Officers of the Tactical Unit were assigned to guard the children, and the quarantine prevented relatives, the media, and everyone other than medical personnel and police personnel approved by Deputy Director Armstrong from having contact with them. No family members were allowed contact with the children from March 3rd through March 8th.
Sergeant Anthony Mullins of the Homicide Bureau was at the scene when Deputy Director Armstrong and Lieutenant Davidson arrived.7 After he had walked Deputy Director Armstrong through the house and provided an overview of the crime scene, Sergeant Mullins left and obtained a search warrant. When he returned with the warrant later that evening, officers entered the home and began collecting any evidence located in the immediate vicinity of the deceased victims’ bodies. By the time this work had been completed, the medical examiner and seven others from the Shelby County Medical Examiner’s Office had arrived at the scene. By 2:30 a.m. on March 4, 2008, the deceased victims’ bodies had been removed and were en route to the morgue. Sergeant Mullins and the officers assisting him left a short time later, but a uniformed officer remained behind to secure the scene. Sergeant Mullins and the crime scene processing team returned between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. on March 4th and continued their work.
Testifying at trial as an expert in general crime scene investigation and bloodstain pattern analysis, Sergeant Mullins described the Lester Street crime scene as horrific and the worst he had ever worked. The living room, into which the front door opened, was very small, with only between five and ten feet of available space around the furniture and the bodies of the four adult victims. The home, he said, was dirty and cluttered. He found evidence indicating that the crime scene had been staged, which further complicated the investigation.
All of the adult victims had sustained multiple gunshot wounds, and all except Mr. Seals had been shot at least once in the leg. Two guns were used in the shooting—a nine-millimeter and a .380 caliber—although neither gun was found at the scene or thereafter. Although the guns were not found, officers located spent bullets in the living room on the sofa cushion, on top of a piece of plastic from a window unit air conditioner, on the floor under Cecil, under the sofa, inside the arm of the sofa, between two sofa seat cushions, in the wall behind the sofa, and in the east wall of the living room.
Shell casings were also found in the living room. Officers recovered two nine-millimeter and three .380 caliber shell casings on the floor. When officers moved a jacket on the love seat, they found a sealed Ziploc bag that contained eleven more nine-millimeter and five more .380 spent shell casings. Sergeant Mullins concluded that the person or persons responsible for the crimes had collected the spent shell casings after the shootings, intending to remove them from the scene.
Sergeant Mullins believed that all of the adult victims’ bodies were moved or staged after the shooting. Cecil’s body was located in a kneeling position in front of the sofa, with his torso on a sofa cushion near a seam where two cushions met, and a bag of marijuana in his left hand. Cecil had sustained several gunshot wounds including several to the front of his body, one to his neck, one to the bottom of his foot, and several to his lower legs. Fibers collected from Cecil’s chin and mouth were consistent with a pillow having been placed over his face when he was shot, and police found a pillow in the living room through which a bullet had passed. The gun used to shoot Cecil’s legs differed from the gun used to shoot his neck. Sergeant Mullins could not determine the sequence of the gunshot wounds to Cecil’s legs, but he believed that several of them may have been inflicted close to or after Cecil’s death.
Sergeant Mullins opined that Cecil’s body had been positioned and staged after the shooting. Sergeant Mullins believed that Cecil was likely facing his attacker when the first shot was fired, explaining that Cecil had several gunshot wounds to the front of his body, which he would not have sustained had he been kneeling with his torso resting on the sofa at the time of the shooting. Sergeant Mullins also believed that the bag of marijuana had been placed in Cecil’s hand, explaining that the bag was so large that Cecil would have been unable to close his fingers around it and would have dropped it had he been holding it during the shooting or while attempting to flee or defend himself.
A loaded twelve-gauge sawed-off shotgun was found on a stack of clothing in the corner of the living room, a little more than an arm’s length from Cecil’s body. Five more live rounds of shotgun ammunition were found under the sofa. DNA testing of blood found on the end of the shotgun barrel revealed that two-month-old Ceniyah was a minor contributor of the blood. According to Sergeant Mullins, the blood on the shotgun barrel indicated that the gun was positioned atop the clothing after the shooting, because no blood spatter was found on any of the clothing beneath the gun and the blood on the gun belonged to a victim whose body was found in another part of the home.
Ms. Roberson’s body was located in a seated position on the floor, with her back to the sofa, her legs extended, and her head to the side, between the sofa and the loveseat. Her shirt was pulled up, exposing her breasts, and her pants were pulled down, exposing her lower body from her waist to her knees. A clear plastic bag containing what appeared to be between three and five rocks of crack cocaine was found on the outer portion of her vagina. Sergeant Mullins concluded that Ms. Roberson’s body also had been staged after the shooting and that she had been pulled from the sofa to the floor near the time of or after her death and her clothing then altered. Little blood was found on the floor beneath her body, but a nearby sofa cushion was stained with very thick coagulated blood, which Sergeant Mullins described as consistent with the type of blood loss that would occur from a gunshot wound like that Ms. Roberson sustained to her leg. Ms. Roberson’s pants were also saturated with blood, and bullet holes in her pants corresponded to the location of the gunshot wounds to her legs, indicating that her pants were covering her legs when she was shot and were pulled down afterwards. The bag of crack cocaine also appeared to be part of the staging, as it was only slightly touching her and appeared to have been placed on her body.
On the floor beneath and around Ms. Roberson’s body were items that appeared to Sergeant Mullins to have been emptied from a purse, although he did not locate an empty purse in the room. These items were not collected as evidence, and Sergeant Mullins could not recall seeing any type of identification, although he did recall seeing Ms. Roberson’s cell phone and photos among these items. Three hairs were collected from Ms. Roberson’s right leg, thigh, and buttocks and sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for testing. Considering the dirty condition of the home and the considerable traffic through it during the previous months, Sergeant Mullins did not view the hairs as significant and opined that they could have easily adhered to her body when it was moved.
Sergeant Mullins believed that Ms. Williams’s body, too, had been positioned after the shooting. Ms. Williams’s body was located on the floor, slumped over onto Ms. Roberson, with her legs positioned across Ms. Roberson’s legs. He pointed out, however, that the carpet was bloodstained on the side opposite of the way she was leaning. Additionally, Ms. Williams’s legs were lying across Ms. Roberson’s legs, indicating that Ms. Williams’s body had been staged after Ms. Roberson’s body had been positioned on the floor.
Sergeant Mullins testified that Mr. Seals’s body was located across from the front door and near the door connecting the kitchen and the living room. However, Mr. Seals’s body was not visible upon entering the home because a large television blocked the view across the living room. Mr. Seals was wearing a black shirt and black pants. His pants were pulled down to below his knees. A cup and a wallet were found near his body, as was a purse with the contents inside, which was later identified as belonging to Ms. Williams. Inside the kitchen, just beyond Mr. Seals’s body, officers discovered a spent projectile under a table and a defect in the kitchen wall, which appeared to have been made by gunfire from the living room.
Although Sergeant Mullins believed that Mr. Seals was shot in the area where he was found, he opined that Mr. Seals’s clothing and body were altered after the shooting. He pointed out that a pool of blood on the carpet near Mr. Seals’s body had a “void” in it—an area where the carpet was not bloodstained—indicating that something had been covering the unstained area of carpet when the blood pool formed. The carpet was bloodstained on the opposite side of Mr. Seals’s body as well. Based on the bloodstains, the distance between them, and the location of Mr. Seals’s legs one atop the other, Sergeant Mullins believed that Mr. Seals’s body may have originally been lying in the area of the “void” and may have been rolled from that area when his pants were pulled down and his wallet removed.
Sergeant Mullins testified that all of the sharp force and blunt force injuries sustained by the deceased and surviving children were inflicted with kitchen knives and wooden boards the perpetrator found in the home. Sergeant Mullins pointed out that officers discovered a gray plastic silverware tray overturned on the floor of the kitchen but did not recover an intact set of kitchen knives. In total, officers found five knife blades throughout the home, including the blade that was lodged in C.J.’s head. The word “Farberware,” a brand of kitchen knives, was printed on one of the two blades recovered from inside the bathtub. Officers also recovered one intact knife handle and what appeared to be broken pieces of another knife handle. Sergeant Mullins believed the perpetrator removed the knife handles from the blades after the assaults. Officers found bloodstained and broken pieces of wood in various places, including the hallway, the bathroom, and bedrooms. According to Sergeant Mullins, the perpetrator’s use of guns, knives, and boards already present in the home demonstrated the perpetrator’s familiarity with the home.
Officers found blood spatter throughout the home, and according to Sergeant Mullins, the large amount of blood spatter found in the bathroom and bedrooms one and two was consistent with a prolonged “one-on-one struggle” rather than a more rapid execution of the children. He noted that the bathroom floor, the bath mat, the area around the bathtub, and the outside and inside of the toilet were stained with blood. A substantial amount of blood had pooled inside the bathtub, where C.J. was found. A bloody partial palm print, later matched to Cemario, was found on the tile wall of the bathroom. Sergeant Mullins described the palm print as a transfer stain, which results from a bloody object or body part coming into contact with and transferring blood onto another surface or object.
Sergeant Mullins identified “cast-off” blood stain patterns on the bathroom wall over the toilet tank. This pattern is produced, he explained, when blood that has adhered to an object or weapon used to strike a person multiple times is cast off the object or weapon during the attack and onto a nearby surface or object. Sergeant Mullins stated that the cast-off spatter on the wall above the toilet consisted of three distinct trails, indicative of three different blows. The top trail, which he described as almost horizontal on the wall, indicated that the victim was close to the wall when the blow was administered. Sergeant Mullins stated that because the cast-off was “a fairly wide pattern,” he believed it came “from one of the boards” rather than a knife, although he could not definitively identify the weapon that produced the pattern.
On the wall over the bathtub and near where C.J. was found, Sergeant Mullins noted still more cast-off spatter, which could have come from either a knife or a wooden board. On the wall near the soap dish he noted cast-off spatter from a different blow, and he identified still more cast-off spatter on the wall above the bathtub faucet controls, which was indicative of additional blows. He observed a “smeared type” transfer stain farther down inside the bathtub, as well as a thick amount of blood in the corner of the bathtub, all of which had resulted from cast-off. On the wall next to Cemario’s bloody palm print, Sergeant Mullins identified even more cast-off spatter, but he could not determine if it was associated with the bloody palm print or if it resulted from a different blow to the same victim or to another victim.
On the top of the toilet tank, Sergeant Mullins identified impact blood spatter, which occurs when an object strikes a bloody surface. Toward the bottom of the toilet, he observed a blood transfer stain. Sergeant Mullins also noticed that blood had dripped down from above, hitting the toilet tank and running down inside the toilet bowl. He testified that this particular pattern was likely produced by an actively bleeding victim positioned above the toilet tank. He testified that the pattern had been dissipated by water or someone wiping through the dripped blood. He also testified that the blood spatter indicated that someone had raised and lowered the toilet seat.
Based on the cast-off patterns, Sergeant Mullins opined that at least one, and up to three, blows were struck in the bathtub. Based on the dripped blood and Cemario’s bloody hand print on the wall, he concluded that more than one victim was assaulted in the bathroom. Sergeant Mullins also noted that three green beads similar to those found in Cecil II’s hair were recovered in the bathroom next to a large drop of blood. While he acknowledged that the beads could have been on the floor prior to the attack, Sergeant Mullins testified that the beads also could have fallen out during an attack on Cecil II in the bathroom. Sergeant Mullins explained that “[t]here is a lot of movement in the bathroom. There’s more than one blow being delivered in the bathroom. You’ve got several pieces of broken wood that would be indicating at least one good blow, but from the blood evidence there’s more than one and there’s movement within that scene.”
Sergeant Mullins also testified about the blood evidence in bedroom one, where Cemario’s body was discovered face down on the floor in a pool of blood. Inside this bedroom, officers found two wooden boards and broken pieces of braided hair scattered across the floor. Sergeant Mullins testified that a forceful blow to Cemario’s head would have broken off the weaker braids. The broken braids scattered across the floor and the pool of blood beneath Cemario’s head suggested that the perpetrator struck the fatal blow while Cemario was lying on the floor in bedroom one. Large spots of dripped blood on the carpet suggested to Sergeant Mullins that Cemario may have aspirated blood. However, Sergeant Mullins believed that some portion of the assault on Cemario occurred in the bathroom. He explained that “[t]he level of violence delivered to [Cemario] couldn’t have happened in [bedroom one] without some additional blood evidence. So there has to be some movement after the fact.”
In bedroom two, where Cecil II and Cedrick were found, investigators found blood stains on the bed, the window blinds, the wall by the bed, the ceiling fan, and the ceiling. Sergeant Mullins testified that the blood spatter was multi-directional, indicating that multiple blows had been delivered in bedroom two. Sergeant Mullins believed that the cast-off blood spatter on the ceiling and ceiling fan resulted from a knife being raised overhead between downward stabbing motions. On the floor beneath the bed, investigators found seventeen more green hair beads like those in Cecil II’s hair.
In bedroom two investigators also located a bloodstained wooden board, an intact knife handle lacking a blade, and two knife blades lacking handles. The first knife blade, found inside a pillowcase between the pillow and the pillowcase, had been bent into an “S” shape and had blood on it. Sergeant Mullins believed the blade was bent when the knife handle was removed, and he found no evidence to suggest that the blade had been twisted and damaged during the stabbing of a victim. The second knife blade, found between the mattress and the wall, and almost on top of the box springs, was discovered only after investigators moved the bed.
In the dresser of the master bedroom, investigators located a box with eleven or twelve rounds of nine-millimeter ammunition. Items were stored in the area beneath the bed. Officers collected two cordless telephones from this area, including one from the floor between the dresser and the laundry room and another from farther back in the bedroom.
Sergeant Mullins opined that a perpetrator in the living room could have trapped the children by standing in the doorway of the living room. Although doors leading to the outside of the home were located in the laundry room and the master bedroom, to reach those doors from the hall bathroom or from bedrooms one and two, the children would have been required to walk through the living room. In addition, the door in the laundry room was secured by a tied cord and appeared as if it had not been used in awhile. Most of the windows in the home had bars.
According to Sergeant Mullins, the perpetrator spent considerable time in the house staging the crime scene after the murder. Sergeant Mullins reiterated his opinion that all four adult victims were moved either close to the time of death or after death, and he noted that Ms. Roberson was not petite and that pulling down her pants, as well as those of Mr. Seals, would have taken time. More time would have been required to position Ms. Williams’s legs across Ms. Roberson’s legs, to place the marijuana in Cecil’s hand, and to place the crack cocaine on Ms. Roberson’s body. Sergeant Mullins stated that additional time was perhaps spent moving Cemario, if he were indeed assaulted in the bathroom and later moved to bedroom one. Removing the knife handles and hiding the knife blades in the pillowcase and under the mattress would have taken more time, as would collecting and removing from the scene all but one of the knife handles. Sergeant Mullins also pointed out that the guns used in the shooting were removed from the scene, and he believed the loaded shotgun had been positioned atop the clothing after the crimes occurred. Sergeant Mullins also explained that some additional time would have been required to locate, collect, and place sixteen shell casings in the sealed Ziploc bag. According to Sergeant Mullins, “[I]t took enough time to alter things in this scene as opposed to boom, boom, stab, stab, out the door. There’s a difference. If you consider all the movement in the scene after this is done, it’s going to take a few minutes but not necessarily hours, I would not think.” He opined that the staging of the crime scene indicated that the perpetrator felt familiar with and comfortable enough to remain in the home for the time needed to finish altering the crime scene.
Sergeant Mullins observed that having knowledge of gangs and drug activity would have been useful in staging the crime scene. However, based on his experience investigating more than 100 gang-related homicides, Sergeant Mullins opined that gang members would not have remained inside the home following the murders and would not have gone to the crime scene unarmed and used weapons they found in the home to commit the offenses. Sergeant Mullins was unaware of any gang-related homicides in which women were murdered and children were assaulted and killed with knives and boards. Sergeant Mullins acknowledged that the defendant’s DNA was not discovered on any item of physical evidence associated with the investigation; however, Sergeant Mullins testified that the lack of DNA evidence linking the defendant to the crime did not exonerate him.