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State of Tennessee v. Shalonda Weems

State of Tennessee v. Shalonda Weems, No. M2018-02288-SC-R11-CD (Sept. 30, 2020).

Written By: Hannah Jones, Associate Editor

Shalonda Weems was a single mother with three small children. Her youngest child, Kar’mn, was six months old in March of 2005. On March 2, 2005, Weems observed Kar’mn acting and eating normally. Kar’mn was sick with a fever on March 1, but Weems noted that Kar’mn was feeling better. On the morning of March 3, Weems found Kar’mn barely breathing and turning blue. Kar’mn passed away later that morning.

Dr. Hawes performed Kar’mn’s autopsy investigation and concluded that Kar’mn’s cause of death was “dehydration and malnutrition with interstitial pneumonitis as a contributory cause of death.” When Dr. Hawes performed the autopsy, Kar’mn had no food or waste products in her body, which was an indicator of malnutrition. Some other signs of malnutrition and dehydration were loss of fat around internal organs, sunken eyes, a sunken fontanel, and dry and doughy skin. Dr. Hawes also noted that Kar’mn’s low level of fat around her organs indicated that she was not receiving proper nutrition for a period of time prior to her death.

Years later, Weems was indicted for aggravated child neglect and felony murder. After the State presented its proof, the defense moved for a judgment of acquittal for aggravated child neglect, arguing that the State failed to prove that Weems “knowingly” neglected Kar’mn – which was an essential element of the crime. The trial court denied this motion so that the jury could decide the issue of neglect. The jury then found Weems guilty of aggravated child neglect and reckless homicide. Weems then renewed her motion for acquittal on both counts, and the trial court granted the motion for the aggravated child neglect charge, finding that the evidence of Weems’s knowledge was insufficient. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of the motion for judgment of acquittal and agreed that the evidence was insufficient.

On appeal, the issue presented to the Tennessee Supreme Court was whether the Court of Criminal Appeals erred by substituting its own judgments for those of the jury, determining the weight of witness testimony, failing to view evidence most favorably to the prosecution, and failing to disregard countervailing evidence.
The proper inquiry in reviewing the lower courts’ decisions centered around whether any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, with all inferences in favor of the prosecution. While Weems was adamant that she fed Kar’mn regularly up until her death, the autopsy contradicted that claim. The conditions present at Kar’mn’s death appeared chronic, indicating that something had been happening over a period of time.

Ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the jury could have made a reasonable inference that Weems’s statements were not credible based on the presented medical and scientific evidence. Therefore, a reasonable jury could have concluded that Weems knowingly neglected Kar’mn by not properly feeding her and therefore causing Kar’mn’s death. The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decisions. As a result, the Court reinstated Weems’s conviction for aggravated child neglect.

One implication from this decision is the importance placed on inferences drawn from scientific evidence. The lower courts both did not believe that knowledge could not be reasonably proven through the scientific evidence, but the result on appeal indicates that a jury may reasonably draw inferences from the scientific evidence to establish elements of the crime. The defendant need not state that neglect occurred for the jury to make such an inference.

State of Tennessee v. Lynn Frank Bristol

State of Tennessee v. Lynn Frank Bristol, No. M2019-00531-SC-R11-CD (Apr. 6, 2022).

Written By: Max Pafford, Associate Editor

The Supreme Court of the State of Tennessee considered the case of Lynn Frank Bristol, a man convicted of two counts of aggravated sexual battery. After the trial court denied a motion for a new trial, Bristol appealed the matter to the Court of Criminal Appeals. The Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately granted an order for a new trial, but not on any issue preserved in the trial court or presented before the Court of Criminal Appeals by either party. The case was remanded for a new trial due to an apparent discrepancy between the oral jury instructions and the written ones, with notable definitions seemingly missing from the written instructions.

After hearing of the discrepancy, the State petitioned for rehearing, stating that the original appellate record had no less than 16 missing pages from the actual, written jury instructions. Those pages contained the “missing” definitions. After the State requested remand to the trial court to clarify which set of instructions had been given to the jury, Bristol responded that “certification of the original appellate record conclusively settled any discrepancy. . .” With these competing claims, the Court of Criminal Appeals directed the trial court to prepare a supplemental record, with the entire written and submitted jury charge. When the trial court clerk certified and submitted a record, the Court of Criminal Appeals denied the State’s rehearing petition because certification and submission by the clerk did not show that the trial court, itself, had settled the discrepancies.

At this juncture, the State sought to appeal to the Supreme Court, which first confirmed with the trial court that the second, longer set of instructions had actually been submitted to the jury. The State claimed error by granting relief on an issue unpreserved and unpresented without first giving the parties fair notice and an opportunity to make their case. Examining the issue of abuse of discretion, the Supreme Court agreed with the State, reversing the Court of Criminal Appeals, and reinstating the convictions. The Supreme Court held that the Court of Criminal Appeals abused its discretion in considering an unpreserved, unpresented issue “without giving fair notice and an opportunity to be heard on that issue.”

The Court’s reasoning was split into three major parts: first, discussion of the limitations on appellate review and the extent of the discretionary authority, second, examination for abuse of that discretionary authority, and third, settlement of the matter of discrepancies between the written and oral jury instructions. Identifying two general principles of appellate review, the Court noted: appellate courts are generally limited to those issues presented to it, and jurisdiction is limited to the matters decided in lower courts. The Court determined that both principles serve the adversarial system and promote efficiency, fairness, accuracy, and the appearance of impartiality.

Nevertheless, courts are given some discretion, but, when exercising it, courts must give the parties notice and an opportunity to present their case on the discretionary issue. “At a minimum, an appellate court must give the parties notice of the specific issue it intends to address and sufficient time to review the record, conduct research, and prepare an argument before the court rules on the issue.” Additionally, the Court noted, that “[r]equiring a party to address an issue for the first time in a petition for rehearing after the court has already ruled is inadequate.”

This case puts down a strong marker for how appellate courts in Tennessee can examine unpresented and unpreserved issues going forward. The general manner in which the Court discussed appellate authority heavily implies that the standard issued here extends beyond the context of the criminal courts as well. In future cases, appellate courts and parties have a clear guidepost as to what is required from an appellate court seeking to raise a discretionary, unpresented, unpreserved issue. “Supplemental briefing ordinarily will be” best, but the important thing is that a party has opportunity to “meaningfully address an issue” prior to a court’s ruling.