Category: Uncategorized

Tommie Phillips v. State of Tennessee

Tommie Phillips v. State of Tennessee, No. W2019-01927-SC-R11-PC (November 3, 2022).

Written By: Alex Redmond, Associate Editor

The Petitioner was found guilty of several charges, including felony murder, attempted first-degree murder, and especially aggravated burglary. Prior to his arrest the Petitioner admitted to police that he had stabbed two people during a fight that broke out over a drug dispute. After his arrest, the Petitioner admitted to police that he had also killed a person during the dispute. At trial, the Petitioner’s statements were used against him, along with eyewitness identification, victim testimony, and the testimony of a police officer who overheard the Petitioner telling his mother his version of what had occurred. A jury convicted the petitioner. He received a life sentence plus 60 years.

The Petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief. The Petitioner argued that his trial counsel failed to provide him with effective assistance of counsel because they did not challenge the admissibility of his statements to the police on Fourth Amendment grounds. The post-conviction court denied relief, stating that the Petitioner failed to establish his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The Petitioner appealed that decision, but the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the judgment of the post-conviction court. The Petitioner appealed that decision, arguing that the lower courts used the incorrect standard in determining whether he had established an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted review.

The legal issue, in this case, can be stated as the following: What legal standard should be applied when a Petitioner is attempting to prove prejudice, to establish an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, due to a failure to file a motion to suppress on Fourth Amendment grounds?

To establish a successful claim of ineffective assistance of counsel based on counsel’s failure to file a motion to suppress evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, the petitioner must prove prejudice by showing: (1) a suppression motion would have been meritorious; (2) counsel’s failure to file such motion was objectively unreasonable; and (3) but for counsel’s objectively unreasonable omission, there is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different absent the excludable evidence.

Tennessee’s Post-Conviction Procedures Act provides criminal defendants a vehicle to bring ineffective assistance of counsel claims against the State. Tennessee law places the burden of proof on the petitioner seeking relief. The petitioner must prove the allegations of fact in his or her petition by clear and convincing evidence. A post-conviction court must then employ the test laid out by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). Under Strickland, the post-conviction court must analyze those allegations of fact and determine whether the counsel’s performance was deficient and whether that deficiency prejudiced the petitioner. In Kimmelman v. Morris, 477 U.S. 365, 375 (1986) the Supreme Court set forth the legal standard and burden of proof to assess prejudice under the Strickland analysis. Thus, to establish prejudice, the petitioner must be able to show that his Fourth Amendment claim is meritorious and that there is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different absent the excludable evidence. The three-prong test set out by the Tennessee Supreme Court is intended to reflect the connection between Kimmelman and Strickland, in the context of ineffective assistance of counsel claims for failure to file a motion to suppress on Fourth Amendment grounds.

Here, the Petitioner failed to show prejudice under the three-prong test articulated by the Court. Generally, a warrant is required for a defendant’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures to be satisfied. However, an arrest supported by probable cause is an exception to this requirement. Here, the petitioner was arrested without a warrant, but he was given a probable cause determination within seven hours of his arrest. In other words, there was no unreasonable delay between the arrest and the probable cause determination. Therefore, a suppression motion filed on Fourth Amendment grounds would have been meritless. The Petitioner also failed the second prong of this test because trial counsel choosing not to file a meritless motion is not objectively unreasonable. Lastly, the Petitioner could not demonstrate that the verdict would have been different absent his inculpatory statements made to the police. The State had reliable identification evidence, testimony from the surviving victims, and the testimony from the police officer who overheard the Petitioner telling his version of events to his mother. So, the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is affirmed.

Prior to this case, the Tennessee Supreme Court had recognized the legal standard set out in Kimmelman but had not had the opportunity to apply it in this context. This case consequently resolved confusion between the test laid out in Kimmelman and the test laid out in Cecil v. State, No. M2009-00671-CCA-R3-PC, 2011 WL 4012436 (Tenn. Crim. App. Sept. 12, 2011). The Petitioner argued that any reliance on Cecil in determining the outcome of his claim was inappropriate because Kimmelman is the governing standard. However, as the Tennessee Supreme Court pointed out, the Cecil and Kimmelman standards for showing prejudice in support of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim are nearly identical. Although it was clear from the Cecil court’s analysis that the correct burden of proof and the legal standard was utilized, the Tennessee Supreme Court acknowledged that the court could have been more precise in defining the legal standard for post-conviction matters as it related to state statutory requirements and the Strickland/Kimmelman requirements. Thus, for clarity and consistency, moving forward lower courts should rely on Kimmelman and utilize the test set out by the Tennessee Supreme Court in this case when deciding this type of ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

State of Tennessee v. Tyler Ward Enix

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.

State of Tennessee v. Terrell Lamont Reid

State of Tennessee v. Terrell Lamont Reid, No. W2019-00636-SC-R11-CD (November 5, 2020).

Written By: Emily Seaborn, Associate Editor

This case concerns claims of relief under Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 36.1, and whether claims are void, or voidable when a person is sentenced under a statute that is presumptively constitutional at the time but is later declared unconstitutional.

The crux of this case lies in its procedural history, not its factual background. On June 24, 2015, Terrell Lamont Reid pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to sell and possession of a firearm by a firearm by a convicted felon. The latter of the charges was enhanced from a Class C felony to a Class B felony pursuant to the criminal gang enhancement statutes. The trial court sentenced Reid to concurrent seventeen-year sentences for both convictions.

On April 7, 2016 – after Reid was sentenced – the Court of Criminal Appeals declared the criminal gang enhancement statute unconstitutional as a violation of substantive due process. However, the enhancement was presumptively constitutional throughout Reid’s sentencing. Despite the finding that the enhancement was unconstitutional, Reid failed to file a petition for post-conviction relief within the one-year period.

Then, on January 14, 2019, Reid filed a pro se “Motion to Correct [an] Illegal Sentence Pursuant to Tennessee Rule[] of Criminal Procedure 36.1.” In short, Reid’s argument was that his sentence was illegal because the criminal gang enhancement was deemed unconstitutional, and that the appellate court’s decision declaring the enhancement unconstitutional should be applied retroactively to his case. On the other hand, the State argued that Reid was not entitled to relief because his case was “final and not pending or under review” when the appellate court’s decision was decreed.

The trial court denied Reid’s motion, but after he appealed, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the judgment of the trial court. The court held that the “application of an unconstitutional law renders a sentence void, and therefore, illegal.” Finding Reid’s sentence void and illegal, the Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case to the trial court “to determine whether the illegal aspect was a material component of the plea agreement.” The Tennessee Supreme Court then granted the State’s application for permission to appeal.

The Tennessee Supreme Court was reviewing whether Reid made a colorable claim for relief under Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 36.1, which governs sentences that are void, or illegal. Much of this case turns on the Court’s interpretation of its prior decision in Taylor v. State, 995 S.W.2d 78 (Tenn. 1999). In Taylor, the State argued, and the Court concurred, that this Court held that a sentence is not rendered void merely because the statute under which the sentence was imposed is later declared unconstitutional. This holding distinguishes a void sentence from a voidable sentence. A voidable sentence may only be corrected if challenged in a timely post-conviction petition, whereas if a sentence is void and illegal, the sentence may be entitled to relief under Rule 36.1. Rule 36.1 motions can be filed at any time.

The dispositive issue, in this case, was whether Reid’s sentence was void or voidable. If Reid’s sentence was voidable, then it could only be corrected by a one-year post-conviction motion, but if it was void – like he asserts – then it could be entitled to relief under Rule 36.1. Ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court concludes that Reid’s sentence is voidable, and not void and illegal. The Court reaffirms its holding in Taylor – “that a statute is presumed constitutional and that a sentence imposed in accordance with a statute in effect at the time of its imposition is voidable and not void.” The Court also differentiates its interpretation of Taylor from that of the intermediate appellate court. While the intermediate appellate court cites to Taylor, and suggested that its holding “is limited to cases preceding the adoption of Rule 36.1 and to cases where declaring a statute unconstitutional had the effect of reviving an earlier statute,” the Tennessee Supreme Court found that it did not limit its holding in that way.

This case clarifies its past ruling in Taylor and reaffirms that a sentence is not per se void and illegal if the statute is presumptively constitutional, but was later declared unconstitutional. Notably, this ruling and interpretation narrows a petitioner’s ability to appeal. If the Petitioner was sentenced under a statute that was later declared unconstitutional, they must challenge the sentence with a timely petition. In contrast, if this Court held that the sentence was void, the sentence could be corrected at any time. Petitioners are now restrained to a time period to appeal their sentence if the statute is declared unconstitutional, which can create greater barriers for Petitioners to correctly, and timely, file their appeals.

State of Tennessee v. William Eugene Moon

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.

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.