Category Archives: Evidence

In controversial 3-2 decision, Tennessee Supreme Court affirms death penalty conviction that is virtually certain to be subsequently overturned

By Daniel A. Horwitz

Like all capital cases, the circumstances of Starr Harris’s death were horrific.  On June 1, 2010, Ms. Harris was brutally murdered in the woods outside her home.  The cause of her death was “strangulation associated with blunt force injuries,” and her body exhibited signs of “extensive trauma to [her] neck and [her] upper torso.”  Ms. Harris also had a “gaping” laceration on the right side of her head with a skull fracture beneath it.  There was blood under two of Ms. Harris’s fingernails, providing evidence of a struggle.  Additionally, the front of Ms. Harris’s shirt had been ripped open while her bra had been pulled down to her waist—possibly suggesting evidence of rape.  It goes without saying that the senseless brutality of Ms. Harris’s murder defies explanation.

Based on a combination of Ms. Harris’s phone records and the testimony of a FedEx employee who had unsuccessfully attempted to deliver a package to her on the afternoon of her death, the time of Ms. Harris’s murder was pegged sometime between 1:30 p.m. and 2:16 p.m.  Unfortunately, there were no witnesses to Ms. Harris’s murder, and no direct evidence indicated who might have committed it.  As is common in murder cases, however, Ms. Harris’s husband – Thomas Harris – was immediately investigated as a suspect.

The investigation that followed quickly gave rise to substantial suspicious evidence.  First, the special agent investigating Ms. Harris’s murder noticed visible scratches on Mr. Harris’s hand and left forearm that could have been consistent with a struggle.  Further, several gray hairs that were collected from Ms. Harris’s left hand were believed to be her husband’s.  Mr. Harris’s DNA was also found in samples obtained from Ms. Harris’s rape kit.  Even more strangely, phone records reflected that Mr. Harris’s cellphone had been “inactive” from 1:32 p.m. to 2:19 p.m. on June 1, 2010—which was precisely the time period when Ms. Harris was believed to have been killed.  Moreover, it soon became clear that Mr. Harris had been having an extramarital affair with another woman at the time of Ms. Harris’s death.  In fact, it turned out that Mr. Harris had lied to Ms. Harris on the day that she was killed while simultaneously planning a tryst with his ex-wife that evening.  Significantly, Mr. Harris also failed to mention any of this in multiple written statements that he gave to police.

The death penalty trial that followed – and the Tennessee Supreme Court’s controversial 3-2 decision to affirm it – paints a vivid picture of America’s catastrophically broken system of capital punishment.  Continue reading In controversial 3-2 decision, Tennessee Supreme Court affirms death penalty conviction that is virtually certain to be subsequently overturned

Tennessee Supreme Court Holds that a Witness’s Claim of Memory Loss Concerning Prior Statements Can Trigger Hearsay Exceptions and that Inconsistent Verdicts Are Acceptable

Guest Post by Memphis Attorney Neil Umsted

A witness’ claimed lack of memory at trial, whether legitimate or feigned, will trigger a number of rules that can allow that witness’ prior statements to be introduced as substantive evidence, the Tennessee Supreme Court held in State v. Marlo Davis, W2011-01548-SC-R11-CD.  Moreover, the Court held that so-called “inconsistent verdicts” will not, standing alone, entitle a defendant to any relief.

Marlo Davis was indicted along with a co-defendant for felony murder and premeditated murder—alternative theories of guilt for the homicide of a single victim. At trial, one of the State’s key witnesses, Jarcquise Spencer, testified that he did not recall witnessing the shooting, that he did not recall identifying the Defendant as the shooter in a statement to police, and that he did not recall testifying at the preliminary hearing in the case.  The trial court, convinced that Spencer was feigning his memory loss, allowed the State to introduce Spencer’s prior statements and prior testimony as proof of the defendant’s guilt.

Continue reading Tennessee Supreme Court Holds that a Witness’s Claim of Memory Loss Concerning Prior Statements Can Trigger Hearsay Exceptions and that Inconsistent Verdicts Are Acceptable