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Drennan v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

November 8, 2018



          R. Brannon Sloan, Jr., for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Michael A. Hylden, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.


         Appellant John Drennan was convicted by a Hot Spring County Circuit Court jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. On appeal, Drennan argues that (1) the circuit court abused its discretion by excluding a toxicology report showing controlled substances in the victim's body; and (2) there was insufficient evidence to convict him of first-degree murder. Because this is a criminal appeal in which life imprisonment has been imposed, this court has jurisdiction pursuant to Arkansas Supreme Court Rule 1-2(a)(2). We affirm.

         On October 12, 2015, Drennan, his wife Amber, and her two children were traveling on Highway 9 in Hot Spring County. Amber was driving the vehicle, Drennan was in the front-passenger seat, and Amber's two children, C.E. and J.E., were in the back seat. At approximately 4:00 p.m., Drennan discharged a firearm inside the vehicle, fatally wounding Amber.

         At trial, Gavin Alston testified that prior to the shooting, he and his friend Michael Hoffman were traveling down Highway 9 to go hunting. Alston testified that as he topped a hill, he could see a man and a woman standing on the edge of his lane of the highway and that they were fighting. Alston testified that the man was "pushing on the woman a little bit." Alston further testified that he saw two children in the ditch watching the man and the woman fight. Alston kept driving as Hoffman called 911.

         Hoffman testified that he was a passenger in Alston's vehicle and the two were going deer hunting. As Alston and Hoffman topped a hill on Highway 9, Hoffman saw a man and a woman standing in the road. Hoffman saw the man push the woman in her chest area. Hoffman further testified that he saw a vehicle in the ditch and two little boys standing beside the vehicle. Hoffman testified that he called 911. Hoffman's 911 call was played for the jury. In the recording, Hoffman reported that he thought there had been a wreck on Highway 9.

         C.E., Amber's son, was eight years old at the time of trial. He testified that on the day of the shooting, he had ridden the school bus from school. He then got into the vehicle with his mother, Amber, and his stepfather, Drennan. C.E. testified that Amber was driving and that Drennan was in the front-passenger seat with a gun in his lap. C.E. testified that he was seated behind Drennan and that C.E.'s brother, J.E., was seated behind Amber. While they were driving down the road, one of the tires on the vehicle went flat, and the vehicle ran off the road. C.E. testified that at one point, Drennan and Amber jumped out of the vehicle while it was still moving. The vehicle ultimately stopped when it ran into the ditch. Drennan and Amber got back into the vehicle and began driving again. C.E. testified that at another point while Amber was driving, Drennan pointed the gun toward the floor, "pretty much at my mom's leg." Amber pushed the gun away so "she wouldn't get [shot]." C.E. testified that Drennan told Amber twice to stop the vehicle, and both times Amber said no. C.E. testified that after Drennan asked Amber to stop for the second time, he pointed the gun at Amber and pulled the trigger. C.E. testified that he saw Drennan pull the trigger and the bullet went into Amber's neck. C.E. further testified that as the vehicle was coming to a stop, Drennan jumped out and started shooting at a blue truck and then ran off into the woods.

         J.E., Amber's other son, was seven years old at the time of trial. He testified that on the day of the shooting, he rode with his mother and Drennan to pick up C.E. from the bus stop. After picking up C.E., and as the family was driving down the road, one of the tires went flat and the vehicle ran into the ditch. J.E. testified that Amber and Drennan then got out of the car, and Drennan chased Amber with a long gun. J.E. recalled Amber telling Drennan to "stop," and then Amber and Drennan returned to the vehicle. With regard to the location of the gun, J.E. testified that the gun was in Drennan's lap, inside a pair of blue jeans that Drennan was holding, with the barrel pointing outside "where the leg goes through." J.E. testified that Drennan told Amber that he loved her and then raised the gun out of his lap and shot her with the gun still inside the jeans. J.E. testified that Drennan shot at a blue diesel truck before he ran into the woods.

         Dr. Jennifer Forsyth, Assistant Chief Medical Examiner at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, testified that she performed the autopsy on Amber. Dr. Forsyth testified that Amber had a gunshot wound to her head and that the entrance wound was located on Amber's right cheek, next to her ear, and the large exit wound was located on the back of her head.

         Brady Gardner testified that on the day of the shooting, as he was heading home on Highway 9, he passed a vehicle with its passenger side "dragging the ground, it looked like, sparks flying, smoke everywhere[.]" He testified that after he passed the vehicle, he thought, "Well, let me go back and see if I can help these people." Gardner turned around and saw a terrified, frantic lady driving the vehicle. Gardner testified that after he saw the lady's arms flailing around, he got a "real bad feeling." Gardner turned his car back around, pulled off the highway, and got out his cell phone with the intent to call 911. However, he did not have cell phone service. Gardner testified that when he looked up, he saw a man with a gun. The gun had something wrapped around it, but Gardner testified that he knew in his heart "that [it was] a gun." Gardner lay down in his seat and then heard a bullet hit his truck. Gardner then looked back up and saw two little boys standing where the man had been standing. Gardner testified that he immediately drove to the waste station. There, he asked an employee to call 911. With regard to the condition of his truck, Gardner testified that steam was blowing everywhere because a bullet had gone through his radiator.

         Roy Overton testified that on the day of the shooting, as he was driving down Highway 9 on his way home from work, he observed two boys standing in the middle of the road. Overton pulled over and got the boys out of the road. Overton testified that the boys told Overton that "momma had a wreck." As Overton walked over to check on the boys' mother, he heard two or three rifle shots that came from the woods approximately fifty yards away.

         Russ Rhodes, a special agent with the criminal investigation division of the Arkansas State Police, testified that he took pictures of the crime scene area. Rhodes testified regarding the evidence collected at the crime scene. Specifically, Rhodes testified that the jeans found at the scene appeared to be new because there was still a sticker on them. Rhodes also testified that the crime lab noted tears and dark discoloration on the jeans. Rhodes testified that the dark discoloration appeared to be gun residue. Rhodes testified that based on the condition of the jeans, it was possible that the pants could have been wrapped over the firearm and the firearm, could have been fired from inside the jeans.

         Thomas Ford, a special-response-team agent with Arkansas Community Correction, testified that he was notified that authorities were searching for Drennan in the woods on Highway 9 just outside Malvern. Ford specializes in fugitive apprehension. Ford testified that ...

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