Monday, June 01, 2009


Steve Henley: The Troubling Reality of Sentence Disparity

Steve Henley and Terry Flatt were convicted of the 1985 murders of Fred and Edna Stafford, an elderly couple living in Jackson County. All the evidence, including the motive for the crime, was provided by Terry Flatt, who made a deal with prosecutors and served just over five years. Steve Henley, who has maintained his innocence from the beginning, received the death sentence. Henley and Flatt had known each other about three months prior to the murders. What happened on July 24, 1985, is in dispute.

Terry Flatt's Account: Flatt and Henley bought and sold a transmission that day and were headed toward Pine Lick Road where Henley's grandmother and the Staffords lived around 6:30 p.m. Flatt said that Henley stated that there were some people there who owed him money and had wronged his grandmother. They passed the Stafford's house and noticed neighbors were visiting. Henley let Flatt out of the truck on the road near Henley's grandmother's driveway. Henley was gone about 5 to 10 minutes and came back with a .22 rifle. Henley drove about 50 or 75 yards down the road, put more shells in the rifle, filled a plastic jug with gasoline from a five gallon gas tank in his truck, and headed towards the Stafford's home around 7:00 p.m. The Staffords were standing in the road by a newly opened bridge. Henley took a pistol from the truck and forced the Stafford's toward the house, ordering Flatt to get the rifle. About 30 feet from the house, Henley told Flatt to give him the rifle and to get the gas can. Henley then shot both the Staffords inside the house. When Flatt returned with the can, Henley threw him the rifle and shot Mrs. Stafford with a pistol in the hallway. The house was then set on fire.

Flatt and Henley left and hid the guns along Keeling Branch road as they headed to Gainesboro, about 15 minutes away, for Henley to see Harold Hix about a job. Upon leaving Hix's house, they met a patrol car who pulled them over and asked where the Stafford's lived. Henley then showed the officers Pine Lick Road.

Problems with Flatt's testimony: Flatt initially lied to authorities about his involvement in the murders saying, "I don't know nothing about no shooting." However, after he implicated himself, he then provided information to the Sheriff. He also acknowledged in his testimony that when he talked to the Sheriff he may have brought up how he could get less time and in another statement said "nothing has really been promised, but we kindly had a little bit of an agreement, some kind of agreement." The jury believed that Flatt would receive a 25 year sentence for his testimony, yet he was paroled after only 5 years in prison. Flatt also admitted to injecting Dilaudid, a powerful painkiller, twice the day of the murders, including a strong injection at 4:30 p.m. He had been using Dilaudid for seven or eight months prior to the crime. Flatt contradicted himself in his testimony stating on his way to Henley's grandmother's house, his mind was not very clear because of the Dialudids and beer. Flatt later stated the events of the day were clear in his mind.

Steve Henley's Account: Henley spent the day preparing to work on a sprayer for a friend's father and purchasing a transmission to sell. He picked up Terry Flatt in the morning because he thought he would need help loading the transmission. After picking up the transmission, he and Flatt bought a six pack of beer, and the two headed to Cookeville to sell the transmission. Later, Henley and Flatt headed to his grandmother's house to pick up some parts for the sprayer. On the way, they stopped for more beer and when Henley came out of the market, Flatt was injecting Dilaudid. They arrived at his grandmother's at around 6:30 p.m. Henley denies having any problem with the Staffords. Because Flatt was intoxicated, Henley did not want him near his grandmother so he dropped Flatt off below the bridge that goes to his grandmother's house past the Stafford's house. Henley kept a .22 rifle in his truck between the gear shift columns because he used it to shoot rabbits in his grandmother's garden. Flatt wanted to keep the rifle in case he saw a rabbit to shoot. Henley and his grandmother both testified that he was with her for 30-45 minutes. His grandmother stated that he did not have the gun at her house that evening. Henley went back down to the spot where he dropped Flatt off, and Flatt stepped out of the corn field across from where Henley left him. Flatt put the rifle behind the seat and got in. Flatt wanted to go to Gainesboro away from the Stafford house, but Henley wanted to go see Harold Hix about a job which took them by the Stafford's. Henley didn't notice anything unusual at the Stafford's since the corn was high and obscured his view. Henley came down Keeling Branch towards Hix's house, and the two stopped to go to the bathroom just off the road. They arrived at Hix's house, and while Henley talked to Hix about the job, Flatt was in and out of the truck outside. Henley stated that he did not have a plastic container to transfer any gas. When they drove back from Hix's house, a patrol car pulled them over, and officers asked where Fred Stafford lived. Henley drove them to the road, pointing toward Pine Lick Creek. He and Flatt headed toward Gainesboro, stopping for more beer. Henley only had $5 so he charged $2.50 to his friend's account, though Flatt testified that Henley had $131cash on him that he took from the Staffords.

Problems with the investigation: On August 1, after Henley and Flatt were arrested, Flatt told Ishmul Wood of the Fire Marshall's office that he poured gasoline in a general area of the house though Wood took no samples nor did Wood take samples from the road where the gasoline had reportedly been poured from one can to another. The shell casings were found on August 2, only after Flatt told authorities his story. Wood testified that he could not say whether the shells were placed at the scene before or after the fire and had no evidence that the fire was arson. The pistol was discovered a day or two after the rifle when the Sheriff instructed officials to go back and search the location of the rifle again. Henley testified that he did not recognize the pistol. Only one shell casing was found inside the house, the others outside. Of the nine shells which were tested, only one was fired from the rifle, and it was not tested to see if it endured a fire. Further testimony revealed that the crime scene may not have been secured during the investigation. The state never produced the plastic gas can which Flatt claims Henley used. Furthermore, Henley interacted with a variety of people around the time of the murders, and no one noticed anything unusual about his behavior. Henley was picked up by the police a few days later on a contempt of court charge for owing money to Production Credit Association for a farming debt. Henley had filed for bankruptcy over his farming losses and was in a dispute over what he owed. His only prior conviction was for transporting stolen property across state lines in 1981, for which he got a two year sentence on probation.

In his sentencing hearing, Henley's attorney made grave errors which led to Henley's death sentence. His attorney never spoke to Henley's family about testifying but in court, called Henley's mother to the stand with no preparation. She asked the attorney to leave the courtroom to talk with her and was so terrified of saying something that would hurt her son that she would not take the stand. This decision left the jury with the impression that Henley's mother did not want to testify on her son's behalf, which could not have been further from the truth. His attorney then called Henley's grandmother, who was also unprepared but did testify. This grossly inadequate representation by his attorney at sentencing led to a reversal of Henley's death sentence by the Criminal Court of Appeals in 1996 only for it to be reinstated by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

How can two men who were together on the night of the murders receive two such different sentences? How can the word of a drug addict who implicated himself in the crime and with everything to lose secure another man's death sentence? Steve Henley should not be executed with this much doubt in the case. In fact, a majority of appellate court judges (5-4) have ruled that Henley sentence should have received a life sentence.

The state of Tennessee executed Steve Henley by lethal injection on February 4, 2009 even though the state's lethal injection protocol was being litigated.