State of Tennessee v. Tyler Ward Enix, No. E2020-00231-SC-R11-CD (January 26, 2022).
Written By: Riley Jones, Associate Editor
In 2015, Mr. Enix was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery. He was charged and convicted of stabbing his ex-wife to death in her apartment. At trial, the prosecution argued that Enix was violent and the victim had warned her friends and family of his violent tendencies. The prosecution also put on evidence that the victim was found dead in her apartment after she did not show up for work and the police conducted a wellness check. The police found two phones at the crime scene. On one of those phones, there were records of Mr. Enix and the victim arguing around the time of the crime. The victim had forty-seven stab wounds. Mr. Enix was arrested in Ohio while driving the victim’s car and using her cards to withdraw cash. Their daughter was found in the car with him.
During the trial, Mr. Enix’s defense was that he was acting in a state of passion when he stabbed his ex-wife and that the murder was not premeditated. He also argued that taking her items was not part of a connected plan to the killing, so it was not a robbery. Mr. Enix was convicted and afterward filed a motion for a new trial. In his motion, he argued that there were four instances of prosecutorial misconduct during the closing arguments on which Mr. Enix was entitled to relief, despite not having objected to them during the trial.
First, the record showed that the prosecution counted to 47, the number of stab wounds inflicted on the victim, and stated that he was out of breath and he hadn’t even been wrestling anyone. In the motion, Mr. Enix argued that the prosecution was pounding on the table and testifying to the mechanics of the homicide, which was highly prejudicial. Second, the record also showed that the prosecution posed the possibility that there were communications on the victim’s phone, like with a man she was dating, that was not found because the defendant destroyed evidence. The motion argued that this was speculation and violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. During rebuttal, the record showed that the prosecution said that Mr. Enix was a coward because he ran from the police. The motion said that this was improper name-calling. Lastly, the record also showed that the prosecution said the defendant was fleeing to Canada, which the motion argued was also speculation.
Mr. Enix argued in his motion for a new trial that he was entitled to relief for these, even though he had not objected to the statements in the trial. Mr. Enix said that including the objections in the motion was enough. The Criminal Court of Appeals review the motion under the Plain Error Doctrine and affirmed the judgment against Mr. Enix. Mr. Enix appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The question before the Supreme Court was what the appropriate standard of review for prosecutorial misconduct during the closing when the defendant does not object.
The Court held that the appropriate standard of review is the Plain Error Standard and affirmed the decision of the Criminal Court of Appeals. The Court said that in general, appellate review is limited to issues that a party properly preserves for review by objecting at trial and on appeal. Mr. Enix’s motion relied on State v. Hawkins, a case that applied plenary review to two claims raised in a motion for a new trial. However, the Court clarified that that case did not explicitly overrule previous holdings that say not objecting to prosecutorial misconduct in a closing argument waives the right to appeal. The Court read the case as not overruling any of these prior cases and instead overruled Hawkins to the extent it is inconsistent with this case’s decision.
In addition, since the Plain Error Standard applies in these cases, the court held that Mr. Enix is not entitled to relief. The standard’s requirements are: (1) a clear record; (2) a clear breach of a rule of law; (3) the breach adversely affected a substantial right; and (4) the error should be considered to do justice. The issue here is that it did not affect a substantial right. It did not affect the outcome of the proceedings because there was an overwhelming amount of evidence that Mr. Enix premeditated murder. This evidence included previous texts that the defendant was going to harm the victim, recovered DNA and the fact that the defendant fled.
There is nothing on the record to show that these comments made by the prosecutor affected the proceedings. Because the prosecutorial misconduct did not affect the proceedings, the Court upheld Mr. Enix’s convictions.
This case defines what the standard will be when deciding on prosecutorial misconduct in closing arguments. Because the Court determined that the Plain Error Standard applies, objecting contemporaneously will be crucial to preserving a claim for appeal on these grounds. The consequence of this decision is that without a contemporaneous objection, prosecutorial misconduct in closing arguments will likely not be grounds for a new trial. The instances will have to satisfy the high burden of the Plain Error Standard. Specifically, the instance will have to have affected a substantial right of the defendant. The Court set this bar at having an effect on the result of the proceedings. After this case, it will be important to object to any possible prosecutorial misconduct in the closing arguments as it happens.