State of Tennessee v. William Eugene Moon, No. M2019-01865-SC-R11-CD (October 6, 2021).
Written By: Emily Wheeler, Associate Editor
William Eugene Moon was convicted of both the unlawful employment of a firearm while attempting to commit or during the commission of a dangerous felony and attempted murder. Upon appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals held the Defendant was not denied a speedy trial and that, though the trial court had committed an error in allowing the improper impeachment of one of the defense’s witnesses, it was a harmless error. Tennessee’s Supreme Court granted the Defendant’s application for appeal regarding whether the appellate court applied the proper standard of review for the right to a speedy trial if that review was completed correctly and if there was a harmless error regarding the improper impeachment of that witness.
On December 17, 2017, Corporal Wilder was patrolling when he noticed four individuals moving between a parked vehicle and a trailer park. Upon questioning an employee of the trailer park, Corporate Wilder asked for the Defendant to exit the trailer; upon his exit, Corporal Wilder noticed a plastic bag inside the Defendant’s mouth and instructed him to spit it out. The two engaged in a brief scuffle. The details of this scuffle formulated the basis of this case. Per Corporal Wilder, the Defendant pulled a gun during the scuffle and aimed it towards Wilder’s abdomen. As such, Corporal Wilder believed the Defendant intended to use deadly force, pushed the Defendant away, and shot him five times. On the other hand, the Defendant alleges that he did not fight against Corporal Wilder and that while he did have a gun on his person, he never drew his weapon. Instead, the Defendant contends the gun fell out when he was shot.
Originally, the Defendant was indicted on five counts: two counts of unlawful employment of a firearm during an attempt to commit or during the commission of a dangerous felony, attempted first-degree murder, resisting arrest, and aggravated assault. Nonetheless, the trial proceeded with only Counts 1, attempted first-degree murder, and 5, unlawful employment of a firearm during an attempt to commit or during the commission of a dangerous felony. At trial, Detective Pyrdom testified that he arrived on the scene as backup and witnessed the scuffle. Though he was unable to see either party’s hands or a weapon in the Defendant’s hands, Detective Pyrdom did hear Corporal Wilder giving directions to the Defendant. After the shots were fired, Detective Pyrdom retrieved the Defendant’s weapon which was found at the bottom of the trailer’s steps. For the defense, two eyewitnesses, Larry and Donald Woods, testified that they never saw the Defendant holding a weapon during the encounter. Further, another witness claimed to have seen the Defendant put the gun in his pants before the encounter but never saw the gun in his hands during the encounter.
Regarding whether a defendant had access to a speedy trial, the parties differ on what would be the proper standard of review. Here, the State argued for an abuse of discretion standard while the Defendant argued for a de novo review. Ultimately, the Court agreed with the Defendant and found that the “standard of review for whether a criminal defendant was denied the constitutional right to a speedy trial is de novo with deference to the trial court’s finding of facts unless the evidence preponderates otherwise”. Further, for this review, the Court examines four factors: the length of the delay; the reason for the delay; whether there was a demand for a speedy trial; and the presence/extent of prejudice to the defendant. Here, the Court found the trial had occurred less than fourteen months from when the events transpired; within that time, two continuances were granted to accommodate an older trial and to ensure a three-day window for this trial to occur. Accordingly, these delays were reasonable, weighing the first two factors against the defendant. For the third, it was undisputed that the Defendant requested a speedy trial which weighed in his favor. Finally, the Court found that the Defendant was unable to show “any discernible prejudice” suffered from his delay in the trial.
Finally, the Court agreed with the Defendant that the improper impeachment of Mr. Larry Woods “more probably than not” had an effect on the judgment to create a reversible error. Here, on cross-examination, the Prosecution almost immediately asked Mr. Woods if he had ever sold methamphetamine from his trailer. The trial court overruled the defense counsel’s objection to the questioning while the appellate court was thorough in explaining why this decision was in error. Here, however, the Defendant contends the appellate court erred as it should not have been deemed a harmless error. Ultimately, the Court found that because the evidence against the Defendant “was not overwhelming”, the effect that the improper impeachment had on the jury’s verdict was extremely difficult to quantify. Therein, the case was remanded to the trial court.
Overall, this decision was extremely important in its clarification of the proper standard of review regarding appeals for one’s right to a speedy trial. Interestingly, the Supreme Court of Tennessee did not follow the State’s preference of the standard that the Court of Criminal Appeals had utilized. Even though their ultimate holdings were the same for that point, the differentiation in the standards provides clarity for lower courts to lean upon in future cases. Additionally, this standard will become increasingly crucial as courts continue to get back on track from the effects of COVID-19. While this case’s events occurred almost five years ago, the issue of providing a defendant with his right to a speedy trial will likely be one that appellate courts will face more often going forward. In addition, because the remnants of the pandemic are being felt nationwide, the Court’s ruling on its governing standard of review could be influential as other states face similar questions.