Supreme Court Affirms Convictions and Death Sentences for Memphis Man Convicted of Killing His Brother, Five Others

September 30, 2014

The Tennessee Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed a jury’s verdict convicting Jessie Dotson of six counts of first degree murder and imposing a death sentence for each of the six convictions. The Court also affirmed Dotson’s convictions of three counts of attempted first degree murder and three consecutive 40-year sentences.

The murders and assaults occurred in Memphis in the very early morning hours of March 2, 2008, at the Lester Street home of Cecil Dotson, Jr., Jessie Dotson’s brother. The murder victims included Cecil Jr., his two-year-old and five-year-old sons, and his fiancée, Marissa Williams, as well as two other adults, Hollis Seals and Shindri Roberson. Three other of Cecil Jr.’s children, ranging in age from nine years to two months, were also assaulted and left for dead in the home by Jessie Dotson but managed to survive for more than 24 hours, until emergency personnel arrived late in the afternoon of March 3, 2008.

All of the adult victims died from multiple gunshot wounds. All of the children were stabbed with knives and beaten with boards, which Jessie Dotson found inside the home. Emergency personnel found one of the surviving children, nine-year-old C.J., in a bathtub with a knife blade embedded in his skull. Investigators quickly realized that the crime scene had been staged, with cocaine and marijuana placed on the bodies of two of the adult victims and shell casings collected after the shootings.

The police initially received information suggesting that the murders were gang-related. As a result, the surviving Dotson family members, including Jessie Dotson, were taken into protective custody. On March 7, 2008, C.J. identified his uncle Jessie Dotson as the perpetrator of the crimes, and he again identified Jessie Dotson as the perpetrator during subsequent interviews and during his trial testimony.

After his arrest, Jessie Dotson admitted his guilt during police questioning and during a conversation with his mother. He told his mother that the shootings happened as he and Cecil Jr. were arguing and that he had assaulted the children because they witnessed the shootings. Proof at trial showed that Jessie Dotson, who had already been convicted of second degree murder and had been released from incarceration shortly before these crimes, did not want to go back to prison after serving fourteen years there.

During his trial testimony, Jessie Dotson recanted his earlier statements and denied any involvement in the crimes. He claimed that he had been in the master bedroom of his brother’s home when he heard others enter and begin shooting. Jessie Dotson said that he had hidden beneath the bed for some time and that he had left the home believing no one else had survived. Jessie Dotson admitted being a gang member and explained that he did not call the police or tell anyone about the crimes because gang members do not report crimes to the police and also because he feared being blamed with the crime because of his prior criminal record.

After hearing all the proof, the jury found Jessie Dotson guilty of six counts of first degree murder and three counts of attempted first degree murder. At a separate sentencing hearing, the jury found the proof established multiple aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury also found that these aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt and justified imposing a death sentence for each first degree murder conviction. At a later hearing before the trial judge alone, Jessie Dotson received three additional 40-year sentences for the attempted first degree murder convictions.

Jessie Dotson appealed, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his convictions. A state law requires the Supreme Court to review the case as well. The Supreme Court affirmed the jury’s verdict and the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision. The Supreme Court also unanimously found the death sentences proportionate, stating that the murders and assaults Jessie Dotson “perpetrated are some of the most horrendous ever committed in Tennessee.”

Retired Justice William C. Koch, Jr. and Chief Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a separate concurring and dissenting opinion, in which they agreed that Jessie Dotson’s sentence is proportionate but reiterated their disagreement with the manner in which the Court conducts proportionality review, which was first expressed in a separate opinion they filed in another Memphis case involving the death penalty, State v. Pruitt.

Read the majority opinion in State of Tennessee v. Jessie Dotson, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, or the joint separate opinion of Chief Justice Lee and retired Justice Koch.