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Joshua Bargery

Other Tennessee exonerations
On the morning of March 4, 2011, the bodies of 68-year-old Sue Shell and her 70-year-old husband, Clarence, were found stabbed and hacked to death in a rural home where they were living on Owl Hoot Lane, in Ridgely, Tennessee.

The home had been ransacked. Family members said that guns were missing, as was some of Sue’s jewelry and a laptop computer.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) investigated the crime.

Later that afternoon, the assistant chief of the Ridgely police department notified the sheriff’s office that a caller had reported that 20-year-old Joshua Bargery was selling some guns. Police located Bargery at the home of a friend. A deputy read Bargery his Miranda warnings, and Bargery agreed to be interviewed. Asked if he was selling some guns, Bargery said he was not. Asked if police could search his vehicle, Bargery said, “Go ahead. It’s fine. There’s nothing there.”

Then, Bargery asked, “Is this about the murders…on Owl Hoot Road?” The home where the Shells were living was on the same tract of land where Bargery’s great-grandmother had once lived.

During a search of the car, a knife was found near the console that appeared to have blood on it, and costume jewelry was found in the trunk. Bargery was arrested and taken to the Lake County Jail where he was later interviewed by TBI agents. When Bargery’s mother came to the jail to see him, Bargery refused to see her. He told a police officer: “Just tell her I’m sorry for everything.”

Police confiscated Bargery’s cell phone. They also took his boots as well as his bib overalls and black sweatshirt.

TBI agents interrogated Bargery. According to notes of the interrogation taken by TBI agent Alaina Kring, Bargery made statements that indicated he had a dream about the murders and had information that police believed only the killer would know. Bargery was not asked if he had committed the crime, and he never admitted he did.

In July 2011, a Lake County grand jury indicted Bargery on two counts each of premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder in the perpetration of a robbery, and especially aggravated robbery.

Bargery went to trial in April 2015 in Lake County Circuit Court. The prosecution sought the death penalty, arguing that Bargery had murdered the couple for money.

The defense team included attorneys J. Houston Gordon, Lyle Reid, Amber Griffin Shaw, Charles Brasfield, Samuel Ivy, and Curtis Hopper. They contended that the murders had been committed by members of the Mexican Mafia or “Mexikanemi,” who were engaged in the drug trade in western Tennessee, and that Bargery was forced to be present when the couple were killed.

The defense said the Mexican Mafia was supplying marijuana to Shondell Hill, a one-time member of the Gangster Disciples street gang in Chicago. Hill, the defense claimed, was dealing marijuana in western Tennessee, and Bargery was his driver. The defense claimed that Hill had forced Bargery to accompany him to the Shell residence where they met three Mexican men. Bargery had remained outside while the couple was murdered. Hill then gave him the items from the home, including guns, jewelry, and the laptop computer, and ordered Bargery to sell them. The defense claimed that Bargery was terrified by what had occurred and so feared his family would be targeted and killed that he falsely implicated himself.

The prosecution’s case was largely built on Bargery’s statement as well as physical evidence, although, with virtually no exception, friends, acquaintances, and even police conceded that Bargery had a reputation as a passive person with no history of violence.

Investigator Joseph Vernon testified that a gun cabinet in the Shells’ master bedroom had “a red liquid smeared” on the handle and that the cabinet was “ajar.” He took photographs of several areas of blood. There were blood smears on the front door and storm door.

Vernon also testified that several weeks after Bargery’s arrest, he went to Boyette’s Resort on Reelfoot Lake. He said he learned that, in the days leading up to the murders, there had been “an unknown male . . . either a mixed or Mexican with short hair” staying in a cabin. Records showed that Bargery had rented the cabin from May 1 to May 4 and paid in cash, according to employees.

A series of witnesses accounted for Bargery’s whereabouts on March 3, 2011 until after 10 p.m. when Bargery had said he was going home to go to bed.

Laquisha Tyler testified that she purchased a digital camera from Bargery on March 4, 2011, for $35. She said Bargery also offered to sell a laptop. She later turned the camera over to the police.

At the time Bargery was arrested, police confiscated a .22-caliber revolver which had belonged to the victims. Police later recovered the victims' laptop from a friend of Bargery’s. In addition, police found a knife in a sheath in the console of Bargery’s car.

TBI Special Agent Julian Conyers testified that he videotaped the crime scene and collected a bloody shoeprint in the kitchen by cutting out the piece of linoleum.

TBI Agent Lawrence James testified that he performed screening tests for potential blood stains. He recalled that the victims appeared to have “had their throats cut” and that there were large amounts of blood at the scene. He collected a bloody washcloth from the master bathroom. James also took swabs of what appeared to be blood stains from the inside of the front door and door knob, the exterior screen door, the handle to a gun cabinet in the master bedroom, and from Clarence Shell’s body. He said Shell was lying face down, and there were what appeared to be “essentially vertical blood drops . . . on his skin.” James also cut out a stained area from a sheet on the bed in the master bedroom and took a cutting from the love seat in the living room because it contained a blood stain that “was a little bit suspicious” because it was “removed . . . by ten feet or so from . . . the rest of the activity.”

Dr. Marco Ross, the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for Shelby County, testified that he conducted the autopsies. He said both victims had multiple sharp force injuries that were the result of stabbing or cutting motions with a sharp instrument. Both had defense wounds as well, he said.

TBI Agent Donna Nelson testified that DNA testing of various items revealed only the victims’ DNA. Nelson testified that she tested Bargery’s boots and bib overalls, but a presumptive test failed to indicate the presence of blood. She said a presumptive test did indicate blood on Bargery’s sweatshirt. Further DNA testing on the sleeve and chest of the sweatshirt revealed a mixture of genetic material, in which Clarence Shell was the major contributor. Additionally, Nelson said testing of the knife from the console of Bargery’s car revealed a mixture of both victims’ DNA. The knife was not checked for fingerprints. She also testified that what appeared to be a fingerprint in blood on Sue Shell’s walker was not collected or swabbed.

During cross-examination, Nelson testified that the crime scene documentation and analysis, photographs, and narrative descriptions complied “with the standards that we have,” and that all evidence with evidentiary value was collected.

TBI Agent Suzann Lafferty, a fingerprint expert, testified that she received a glass light cover from the front porch of the victims’ residence, two wallets, a jewelry box, jewelry from the trunk of Bargery’s car, and the .22-caliber pistol. She attempted to lift latent fingerprints, but found none. Lafferty said no attempt was made to lift prints from the victims’ gun cabinet, the front door and doorknob, the exterior storm door, the knife from Bargery’s car, or the victims’ laptop.

TBI Special Agent Linda Littlejohn testified that she compared the tread designs of the boots Bargery was wearing at the time of his arrest to the linoleum cuttings of the bloody shoeprints taken from the crime scene. She said the tread design appeared to be similar, so she made a test impression. Littlejohn said she found that three of the four partial impressions from the crime scene were “consistent with the right boot . . . with size, shape and tread design; and, therefore, that right boot or another right boot with those same class characteristics could have made that impression.”

TBI Agent Cathy Ferguson testified that she participated in Bargery’s interrogation. She said Bargery said that he “knew what happened out on Owl Hoot Road, but [said the agents] didn’t know if he was involved unless he told us.” Ferguson also said Bargery said that “he thought it happened during a black-out, and then went on to say that maybe it was during a dream.” Ferguson testified that Bargery was asked if anyone else was involved, and he said that he acted alone.

During cross-examination, Ferguson conceded that no officer specifically asked Bargery if he had killed the victims.

Bargery testified and told the jury that he was present when the Shells were killed, but he had nothing to do with the crime.

He said that in the days leading up to the crime, Hill had a dispute with his supplier, Joel Hernandez, over the quality of the marijuana that Hernandez had brought up from Texas. Bargery said that Hernandez had privately told him that he would be dealing with Bargery instead of Hill. Bargery testified that he realized that he was “in way over my head.” Hernandez said Bargery could not refuse. Bargery testified that rather than argue with Hernandez, he decided to talk to Hill later.

Bargery said that on March 3, 2011, when he told Hill about the conversation, Hill became angry. He said Hill accused Bargery of going to work for Hernandez and cutting Hill out.

“I thought at any moment he was just gonna rear back and . . . smack me,” Bargery testified. “What we were talking [about] involved way, way, way more than what I was prepared to do and it was on so many levels on top of what I was, what I could ever be,” he testified. “And I knew that there was [sic] some serious people involved and I couldn’t -- I didn’t want to be involved in this. And they were -- they were telling me that I was involved, that I was gonna be involved, that I didn’t have any choice about it.”

Bargery said that by the time he left Hill’s residence around 5:30 p.m., he had decided to “cut ties as best as I could.”

At 11:42 p.m. that night, Bargery said he was in bed watching television when Hill summoned him. When he got there to Hill’s home, Hill was talking to two men who were next to a gold-colored vehicle with Texas license plates. A third man was in the driver’s seat. Hill got into the passenger seat of Bargery’s car and began giving directions. Bargery testified that when they turned onto Owl Hoot Road and he asked why they were heading that way, Hill tersely replied, “Just drive, man. Go!”

Bargery said Hill directed him to stop in the driveway of the house where the Shells lived. The gold-colored vehicle then pulled into the driveway in front of Bargery’s car. Three “Mexican men” stepped out wearing gloves. Bargery said Hill ordered him out of the car. He said he felt he had no choice but to obey. Meanwhile, Hill donned gloves.

Bargery said the three Mexican men entered the house carrying knives. He said he was “rooted to the spot.” Hill entered the home as well, and soon, Bargery said he heard “a really loud sound” coming from inside and then the sound of “gurgling” and a woman screaming.

Bargery said the “tall Mexican” came back outside, slapped him on the side of the head and forcibly pulled him into the house. Bargery said when he saw a body on the floor, he ran back outside and began to cry.

The “tall Mexican” asked Bargery, “What’s wrong, white boy, you can’t handle a little blood?” Bargery said the “tall Mexican” then said, “This is what happens to people who think that they can [obscenity] with us.” Bargery said he then added, “You are going to do every[thing] and anything that you’re told to do or this shit [will] happen again.”

The “tall Mexican” then ordered Bargery to go inside the house. Bargery said he went into the master bedroom where Hill was rifling through a drawer. The “fat Mexican” had two guns in his hands. The “short Mexican” walked out the bathroom wiping his hands on a towel and the men were no longer wearing gloves. Hill grabbed a laptop off the floor and told Bargery to put it in his car and to come back and “grab some more stuff.” Bargery said he did as he was told, and when he returned, the “tall Mexican” was coming out of the kitchen with blood on his shirt, on both of his hands, and on a knife that he held in his hand. Bargery said the “tall Mexican” pointed the knife at Bargery’s chest and said, “Take it. Take it. Take it. Take it.”

Bargery said he took the knife, and the “tall Mexican” wiped both of his hands on Bargery’s hands, saying “Now their blood is really on your hands.” Bargery said he began weeping again.

Bargery said the “tall Mexican” put his hands on Bargery’s shoulders, and said, “You gonna be okay, white boy? This is good fun, huh? Just remember, you do everything you’re . . . told or this...will happen again.”

Bargery told the jury, “They thought that they had just killed my great-granny and [Hill] knew where my mama lived, where my brothers lived.” Bargery said he “wasn’t gonna let that happen to my family.”

Hill told Bargery to put the guns in the car. Hill got into the passenger seat of Bargery’s car with a knife in his hand. He then took a camera and pistol out of his pocket and put them in the glove compartment. Bargery said Hill told him to sell the stolen property as quickly as possible.

The defense sought to allow Bargery to testify that Hill then threatened him.

According to Bargery, Hill told him, “we know where your family’s at. We know where you’re all at out on the highway. We know where your granddaddy lives over in [Tiptonville]. We know where your grandparents live. You know what’ll happen.”

The prosecution objected, and the testimony was not allowed.

Bargery said he “couldn’t tell [police] what happened because I didn’t want what happened to the [victims] to happen to my family.” He said he did not call the police because he “wasn’t gonna do anything to get my family killed.”

“I was keeping my family out of it. I was ready to go to jail,” Bargery testified. “I was ready to die to keep my family out of this. I didn’t want anything to happen to my mama like what happened . . . to the [victims].” He said he didn’t even tell his attorneys what happened until about six weeks before the trial.

Bargery insisted that he was not at the victims’ residence that night of his own free will and that he did not want to enter the house. He went in because the “tall Mexican” made him. He denied that he killed the victims and denied telling police that he had done so. He said he was acting under duress when he sold the items taken from the victims’ residence and stated that he had not wanted to sell the items.

Shondell Hill testified and denied being present at the murders. He said that Bargery came to his home on March 4 with a Crown Royal bag and some jewelry. “I asked him where he got that from,” Hill testified. “He said, ‘We hit a lick last night.’ He never said who ‘we’ were or none of that. I didn’t ever ask who ‘we’ were.”

Joel Hernandez, who was serving a federal prison sentence for “smuggling illegal aliens,” testified that he supplied marijuana to Hill. He denied that he was a member of the Texas Mexican Mafia or “Mexikanemi,” claiming he was a gang “associate” while in prison, which meant that he was under the gang’s protection. He admitted that he had signed a document while in prison admitting that he had been a member of the gang since 2009.

Hernandez denied knowing or seeing anyone in a gold or champagne-colored car with Texas tags while he was in Ridgely. He denied any knowledge of the murders.

Dennis Waller, an expert in police investigation policies and procedures, testified that he reviewed the evidence in the case as well as the TBI’s policy and procedures manual. Waller said that the investigation was “minimal” and that it would “absolutely not” meet the minimum standards of a police investigation of a double homicide. Waller testified that there should have been a crime scene log created to document who went in and out of the victims’ residence, but no such log existed. Additionally, he said that an attempt should have been made to collect samples from all of the different pools of blood in the residence to determine if any of it came from a perpetrator.

He testified that a blood spatter expert should have been called in and that a technician should have dusted for fingerprints on a variety of surfaces inside the residence.

Janice Johnson, a forensic specialist from Florida-based Forensic Pieces, testified as an expert in the areas of crime scene investigation and blood spatter analysis. Johnson testified that many of the crime scene photographs did not comply with accepted standards for crime scene documentation. With the exception of a few photographs of the front door, the TBI failed to photograph blood stain patterns at the scene with a proper scale, Johnson testified.

Johnson said, “You would want to do proper collection of these spatter patterns to determine whose blood is where. Obviously, in this case we have two people that have received injuries. So you’d want to know whose blood is where. And perspective in the violent attack; perhaps the perpetrator injured themselves and in doing so sometimes they will leave blood stains behind.”

Johnson stated, “The end result is that we perhaps had forensic evidence that was not detected, collected or preserved that could help us with the reconstruction of the case.” She also noted that tire impressions in the victims’ driveway were not preserved by the TBI. Bargery’s shirt was not properly preserved; rather, it was “just wrapped together in a ball,” she said.

She said that if Bargery’s boots had made the print in the linoleum, she would have expected to find blood residue on Bargery’s boots even if they had been washed because “when people scrub, it’s impossible to remove all the blood.” Johnson testified that no blood was found in Bargery’s vehicle, on his cap, coveralls, or blue jeans, which dragged on the ground.

The defense asked Johnson whether, based on her review, it was more likely that the murders had been committed by one person or by three or four people. The prosecution objected. Outside the presence of the jury, Johnson said that she believed the crime was committed by more than one person and that the Shells were attacked at the same time by multiple people.

The trial judge sustained the prosecution’s objection and refused to allow Johnson to give that testimony.

Dr. Alfonzo Valdez, a lecturer at the University of California, Irvine who said he was a former police officer and an expert in gangs, testified that based on his review of Hernandez’s tattoos, criminal record, and prison records, he was a member of the Mexikanemi. Dr. Valdez said the Mexikanemi primarily funded itself through drug sales, contract killings, extortion, and “home invasion robberies.” Dr. Valdez testified that the Mexikanemi was operating in West Tennessee at the time of the murders, and that, based on his review of the case, the violence inflicted upon the victims was consistent with the violence of the Mexikanemi. Dr. Valdez explained that he had also studied Hill’s gang, the Gangster Disciples, and that the crime was consistent with violence inflicted by the Gangster Disciples.

Dr. Richard Ofshe, an expert on police interrogation tactics and on the reliability of suspects’ statements, testified that he had reviewed the notes of Bargery’s interview. The notes, he said, “don’t add up to anything. And even by the admission of the interrogators… they don’t add up to an admission to participation in the crime.”

Dr. Ofshe noted that Bargery’s statement was “couched as a dream” and was not “a statement about something that happened.” Dr. Ofshe testified that, if the details of the crime scene were known in the community at the time Bargery was questioned, his statement could have been contaminated by that information. Dr. Ofshe testified that the statement was “worthless.”

The defense also sought to call Memphis Police Lieutenant Anthony Carter to testify that gangs were operating in Lake County. However, at the last minute, Carter declined to testify, and the defense blamed pressure from the prosecution.

The defense said Carter was prepared to testify that he had reviewed the photographs taken at the crime scene and saw two pieces of fabric that were “out of place and seemingly fresh.” He said that based on his experience, the fabric was “consistent with the colors, patterns, and type of material displayed and at times worn by members of the Surenos, a predominantly Mexican gang, which he said was active in West Tennessee in 2011 at the time of the murders.

C. Phillip Bivens, one of the trial prosecutors, denied that the prosecution sought to prevent Carter from testing.

Judge R. Lee Moore Jr., who was presiding over the trial, denied the motion for a mistrial. He brushed aside the defense claims of undue influence on Carter. “If he refuses to testify, you’ll just have to find somebody else,” the judge declared.

During the prosecution’s rebuttal argument to the jury, Bivens said that the defense and Bargery waited four years to “come up with this great story about how he was forced to do all of this by a gang.” Bivens also accused Bargery of “some dramatics. What class had he just taken? Theater?”

Bivens said that the defense had presented no evidence that multiple perpetrators were involved.

On May 9, 2015, the jury convicted Bargery of two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree felony murder, and two counts of especially aggravated robbery. Bargery was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In May 2017, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Bargery’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that the exclusion of Bargery’s testimony about Hill’s threat the morning after the murders, the trial court’s prohibiting Johnson from testifying that the crime scene was consistent with multiple perpetrators, and the prosecution’s “improper interference” with Lieutenant Carter had rendered the trial unfair.

The court also found that the prosecution engaged in “prosecutorial misconduct in closing argument” based on Bivens’s arguments that defense had concocted Bargery’s story in the four years between the murders and the trial and Bivens’s argument that the defense presented no evidence beyond Bargery’s testimony to support his account of what happened.

The court said that “the excluded testimony would have corroborated [Bargery’s] testimony, further established his defense of duress, and challenged many aspects of the State’s proof.”

The case was subsequently transferred to Madison County for a retrial, which began in April 2022. During this trial, Bargery’s legal team—Houston Gordon, Penny White, and Joe Riley—presented the evidence from Johnson and Carter that had been prohibited at the first trial. In addition, Bargery was allowed to testify about Hill’s threat to him and his family.

On May 5, 2022, the jury acquitted Bargery, and he was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/1/2023
Last Updated: 2/1/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:2011
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No