Category Archives: Criminal Procedure

Tennessee Supreme Court Restricts Coram Nobis Relief, Overturning Recent Precedent Yet Again

By Daniel Horwitz:

In a 3-1 decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that petitions for writ of error coram nobis filed pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105 can no longer be used to challenge guilty pleas.  The Court’s decision in Frazier v. State formally overturns its prior decision in Wlodarz v. State,[1] which the Court decided on precisely the same issue just four years ago.

Frazier marks yet another step in the Court’s increasingly activist efforts to overturn past precedent and eschew stare decisis in cases that bolstered the rights of the accused under Tennessee law.  Following the recent departure of Justices Gary Wade and Janice Holder, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s new conservative majority has aggressively sought to limit and overturn earlier rulings that established protections for criminal defendants—even, in some instances, when both the government and defendants agreed that certain rights existed.[2]  The Court’s recent decisions following this approach have run the gamut from issues involving jury instructions to narrowing the means by which defendants are permitted to prove that they suffer from an intellectual disability.  Perhaps most controversially, however – at least for the moment – in May 2016, the Court issued its decision in State v. McCormick on the “community caretaking doctrine,” which created a new exception to the warrant requirement in Tennessee and overturned the Court’s prior decision in State v. Moats on the very same question barely three years earlier.[3]

The specific issue involved in Frazier was Tennessee’s coram nobis statute, which is codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105.  Coram nobis is a venerable common law writ dating back to sixteenth century England that has been used throughout the United States to cure injustice when no other procedural mechanism was available.  Perhaps the most famous example of the writ’s issuance in recent history is the posthumous exoneration of George Stinney Jr. in 2014– a 14-year-old black child who was executed in South Carolina in 1944 after being convicted of a capital crime that he did not commit.  Broadly speaking, however, from a historical perspective, “the common law writ of error coram nobis has served as a ‘gap-filler’ which was invoked ‘to rectify a recognized wrong when all other possible remedies [we]re no longer available.’”[4]

Frazier involved a defendant who pleaded guilty to second degree murder in 2004.  In 2011, he sought coram nobis relief from his conviction based on newly discovered evidence.  It is not clear from the court’s opinion what the newly discovered evidence was, but suffice it to say that defendants sometimes do plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit or plead guilty for other reasons that are unrelated to their guilt.  As a result, most people agree that some type of relief should be available to defendants who can make a credible showing that they are innocent of a crime for which they pleaded guilty, were unlawfully coerced or threatened into pleading guilty, or pleaded guilty as a result of some other constitutional infirmity.  Based on a variety of limitations that require defendants to assert such claims quickly after their pleas are accepted or else lose them forever, however, there is often no procedural mechanism available to defendants who seek to prove the illegitimacy of a guilty plea several years after it was entered.  Thus, in such situations, it is natural for a defendant to turn to the writ of error coram nobis for relief when no other remedy is available.

The only question at issue in Frazier was “whether a criminal defendant who pleads guilty may later attack that plea by seeking error coram nobis relief.”[5]  The uncertainty arose out of Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105’s use of the word “trial” – rather than a more general term like “hearing” or “proceeding” – which at least plausibly lends itself to the conclusion that guilty pleas were intended to be excluded from the statute’s ambit.   Specifically, the relevant section of Tennessee’s coram nobis statute provides:

The relief obtainable . . .  shall be confined to errors [outside] the record and to matters that were not or could not have been litigated on the trial of the case, on a motion for a new trial, on appeal in the nature of a writ of error, on writ of error, or in a habeas corpus proceeding.  Upon a showing by the defendant that the defendant was without fault in failing to present certain evidence at the proper time, a writ of error coram nobis will lie for subsequently or newly discovered evidence relating to matters which were litigated at the trial if the judge determines that such evidence may have resulted in a different judgment, had it been presented at the trial.[6]

In 2012, however, this uncertainty was resolved by the Tennessee Supreme Court in Wlodarz v. State, which held without equivocation that: “a writ of error coram nobis is available to challenge a guilty plea . . . .”[7]   In Wlodarz, the Court explained in a lengthy section entitled “Guilty Plea Proceeding as a Trial” that “[n]umerous authorities interpret the term trial broadly.”[8] The Court’s majority also cited extensive precedent from the United States Supreme Court, the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, and the legal treatises American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secundum to support that proposition.[9]  Consequently, the Wlodarz court concluded that “[i]t is inappropriate, in our view, to trivialize a guilty plea proceeding by holding that it does not constitute a ‘trial.’”[10]  The Court further observed that “[i]f this Court were to say that a guilty plea proceeding is not a trial and thus, not subject to the writ of error coram nobis, we would be the first to so hold, brushing aside centuries of tried and tested jurisprudence.”[11]

Importantly, no legislative changes of any kind were made to the coram nobis statute after Wlodarz was decided.  At least to this author’s knowledge, the decision was not followed by any other legal or factual developments that might have caused the Tennessee Supreme Court to reconsider it, either.  Instead, the only intervening fact of significance was a recent change in the composition of the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Thus, without any particular reason for doing so, the current Court decided to grant review in Frazier “to reexamine the availability of the error coram nobis statute as a procedural mechanism to collaterally attack a guilty plea.”[12]

Upon review, a three-Justice majority explained that “[t]he plain and ordinary meaning of the term ‘litigated on [or at] the trial’ in the context of criminal prosecutions refers to a contested proceeding involving the submission of evidence to a fact-finder who then must assess and weigh the proof in light of the applicable law and arrive at a verdict of guilt or acquittal.”[13]  The majority then recited that its “oath is to do justice, not to perpetuate error” – a familiar line invoked by courts when overturning established precedent – and further held that the value of stare decisis was limited in this instance because “Wlodarz is only a few years old.”[14]  Accordingly, Frazier’s majority decision formally overruled Wlodarz and held that the term “trial,” as used in Tennessee’s coram nobis, must actually be construed narrowly.

In a short but hard-hitting dissent, Chief Justice Sharon Lee lambasted the majority for having dispensed with stare decisis so readily.  She noted: “The principle of stare decisis, that the Court should follow precedential decisions, is ‘a foundation stone of the rule of law.’”[15]  This foundation, she explained, “promotes consistency in the law and confidence in this Court’s decisions,” and it “gives firmness and stability to principles of law so that people may know their legal rights.”[16]  Further, Chief Justice Lee observed:

We previously set out the circumstances when the Court may and should disregard stare decisis, overrule precedent, and overturn a settled rule of law: when there is obvious error or unreasonableness in the precedent; when a change in conditions makes the precedent obsolete; when adherence to precedent would likely cause greater harm to the community than would disregarding stare decisis; or, especially, when prior precedent conflicts with a constitutional provision.  The Court should follow precedent unless an error has been committed, and it becomes plain and palpable.  The Court may also revisit an earlier decision where experience with its application reveals that it is unworkable or badly reasoned.  Here, none of those compelling reasons are posed.[17]

As noted in this article’s introduction, Frazier represents just another star in a constellation of recent judicial activism by the Court’s new conservative majority, which has all but rushed to overturn past precedent that bolstered the rights of criminal defendants.  This pattern is also likely to continue.  Coming down the pipeline, for example, the Tennessee Supreme Court recently granted review in State v. Tuttle by expressing its “interest[] in briefing and argument of the question whether this Court should revisit the continuing vitality of State v. Jacumin, 778 S.W.2d 430 (Tenn. 1989).”  Ten months ago, the Court also heard argument in State v. Reynolds, which may well result in Tennessee’s imminent adoption of its first-ever “good faith” exception to law enforcement misconduct.  (Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, this author participated in drafting an amicus curiae brief in Reynolds on behalf of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers that opposed such a result.)

Jacumin represents one of Tennessee’s most celebrated state constitutional protections, requiring law enforcement officials in this State to establish a comparatively greater degree of confidence before obtaining search warrants.  Based on the Court’s recent jurisprudence, however, Jacumin’s continued survival (and the survival of myriad other precedential decisions) seems unlikely.  Regardless of the specific question involved, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s new philosophy is clear: no prior precedent bolstering the rights of the accused under Tennessee law – no matter how recent or long-established – stands on firm footing any longer.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at

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[1] 361 S.W.3d 490 (Tenn.2012).

[2] See, e.g., State v. Brown, 479 S.W.3d 200, 210 (Tenn. 2015) (“we are not required to accept the State’s concession and decline to do so in this instance. . . .  We are also not persuaded by Mr. Brown’s and the State’s interpretation of Rule 36.1, although we recognize that some panels of the Court of Criminal Appeals have embraced this interpretation of the rule.”).

[3] 403 S.W.3d 170 (Tenn. 2013).

[4] Daniel A. Horwitz, Revealing Disturbing Gap in Tennessee Law, Tennessee Supreme Court Rules that Allegedly Retarded Death Row Inmate Is Not Entitled to Prove that He’s Retarded, (Apr. 19, 2016), (quoting Wlodarz v. State, 361 S.W.3d 490, 499 (Tenn. 2012)).

[5] Frazier v. State, No. M-2014-02374-SC-R-11-ECN, 2016 WL 3668035, at *1 (Tenn. July 7, 2016).

[6] Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105(b).

[7] 361 S.W.3d at 504.

[8] Id. at 501-04.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 503.

[11] Id. at 504.

[12] Frazier, 2016 WL 3668035, at *2.

[13] Id. at *3.

[14] Id. at *6 (quoting Jordan v. Baptist Three Rivers Hosp., 984 S.W.2d 593, 599 (Tenn. 1999)).

[15] Id. (dissenting opinion) (quoting Kimble v. Marvel Entm’t, LLC, 135 S.Ct. 2401, 2409 (2015)).

[16]  Id. (quotations and citations omitted).

[17] Id. at *7 (citations omitted).

Revealing Disturbing Gap in Tennessee Law, Tennessee Supreme Court Rules that Allegedly Retarded Death Row Inmate Is Not Entitled to Prove that He’s Retarded

By Daniel Horwitz:

Pervis Payne is a death row inmate in Tennessee who may well be mentally retarded.  Significantly, both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions forbid the Government from executing mentally retarded people.  In a unanimous 4-0 opinion, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that under Tennessee law, Mr. Payne is not allowed to prove that he is mentally retarded to a court.

Pervis Payne was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1988.  Thereafter, both the Tennessee Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under the Tennessee and U.S. Constitutions, executing mentally retarded people is cruel, unusual, and categorically forbidden.  Additionally, in 1990, the Tennessee legislature enacted a law providing that: “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, no defendant with mental retardation at the time of committing first degree murder shall be sentenced to death.”[1]  Following these developments, an individual cannot lawfully be executed if the individual has:

(1) Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning as evidenced by a functional intelligence quotient (I.Q.) of seventy (70) or below;

(2) Deficits in adaptive behavior; and

(3) The [individual’s] intellectual disability . . . manifested during the developmental period, or by eighteen (18) years of age.

Because all of these legal developments came only after Mr. Payne’s conviction, however, Mr. Payne has never had a hearing on the issue of his alleged mental retardation.  Nonetheless, there is strong reason to believe that he is indeed mentally retarded.  Among other indications, for example, Mr. Payne’s scores from multiple IQ tests administered between 1976 and 2010 all place him within or very near the range of mental retardation.  Significantly, one IQ test that was administered when he was nine years old produced a raw IQ score of 69.  If accurate, such a score would definitively establish Mr. Payne’s mental retardation so long as Mr. Payne could also prove that he has deficits in adaptive behavior.

After reviewing several of Mr. Payne’s IQ tests and evaluating Mr. Payne personally, Dr. Daniel J. Reschly—a professor of education and psychology at Vanderbilt University—recently stated in a sworn affidavit that Mr. Payne “has significant deficits in adaptive behavior due to substantial limitations in the conceptual skills and practical skills domain.”  Based on Mr. Payne’s consistently low IQ scores, his deficits in adaptive behavior, and the fact that Mr. Payne has been intellectually disabled since he was a child, Dr. Reschly also concluded under oath that Mr. Payne satisfies the established constitutional criteria for mental retardation, which would prohibit the Government from executing him.

Armed with this evidence, on April 4, 2012, Mr. Payne’s attorneys attempted to invoke several different procedures under Tennessee law in an effort to win Mr. Payne an evidentiary hearing on his mental retardation claim.  However, the trial court summarily denied all of Mr. Payne’s claims without holding a hearing.  Ultimately, the case reached the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In adjudicating Mr. Payne’s case, the Tennessee Supreme Court was called upon to decide what procedural mechanism Mr. Payne might use to go about proving that he is mentally retarded.  Unfortunately for Mr. Payne, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that as far as Tennessee law is concerned, no such procedure exists.

a.  Standard Post-Conviction Claim

Under Tennessee law, the traditional procedure for challenging a conviction that has become final is to file a “post-conviction petition.”  Post-conviction petitions are governed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-101, which is appropriately called the “Post-Conviction Procedure Act.”  Because Tennessee law recognizes what the Tennessee Supreme Court has described as the Government’s “interest[] in preserving the finality of judgments,”[2] however, only certain claims are eligible for consideration.  Specifically, in order to obtain post-conviction relief, defendants must prove that either their convictions or their sentences violate a right that is “guaranteed by the Constitution of Tennessee or the Constitution of the United States.”[3]

Notably, the Post-Conviction Procedure Act also imposes a strict one-year statute of limitations for filing post-conviction petitions.  Specifically, Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-102(a) provides that absent exceptional circumstances, a defendant’s post-conviction petition must be filed “within one (1) year of the date on which the judgment became final, or [else] consideration of the petition shall be barred.”  In more cases than not, this one-year statute of limitations operates to foreclose defendants from getting their claims into court at all regardless of their merit.  Why, one might wonder?  The answer is that most defendants in Tennessee are not aware of the strict one-year requirement, and since convicted defendants generally do not have the right to an attorney until after they have filed a post-conviction petition, they often learn about the one-year limitations period only after it has expired.[4]

With respect to the first requirement—that a conviction or sentence violate either the U.S. or Tennessee Constitutions—Mr. Payne’s claim unquestionably qualified.  In December of 2001, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that “the execution of a mentally retarded individual violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, § 16 of the Tennessee Constitution.”[5]  Barely six months later, in June of 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit, holding that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender.”[6]  Thus, because Mr. Payne asserted that his death sentence was unconstitutional in light of his mental retardation, this claim qualified for post-conviction review.

Unfortunately for Mr. Payne, however, these constitutional developments came more than a decade after he was convicted.  Accordingly, the traditional one-year requirement for filing a post-conviction petition had long expired.  As a consequence, Tennessee law prohibited Mr. Payne from having his post-conviction claim heard by a court unless he could “re-open” his post-conviction proceeding by proving that the new rule at issue applies retroactively.

b.  “Re-opening” a Post-Conviction Claim Under Retroactivity Exception

The question of whether a new constitutional rule of criminal procedure applies retroactively is one of the most complex inquiries in constitutional law.  It has also repeatedly befuddled the Tennessee Supreme Court, which has reversed itself on the issue at least four times in the past twenty years[7] only to arrive—in 2014—at a standard that conspicuously conflicts with the text of the standard that it was attempting to adopt.[8]  During the intervening chaos, the Court of Criminal Appeals occasionally applied multiple retroactivity standards to defendants’ claims because it could not parse the Tennessee Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the matter.[9]

At present, however, the statutory retroactivity standard codified in the Post-Conviction Procedure Act governs retroactivity claims.[10]  This statute provides that new rules apply retroactively if they either: (1) “place[] primary, private individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law-making authority to proscribe,” or (2) “require[] the observance of fairness safeguards that are implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”  Confusingly, however, with respect to the second rule, the Court held in 2014 that the Tennessee legislature actually intended to adopt “the federal standard from Teague v. Lane,” rather than the “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” standard that actually appears in the statute.[11]  Thus, at present, the text of the second portion of Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-122 is to be ignored in favor of the second Teague v. Lane exception, which provides that retroactivity attaches to “new procedures without which the likelihood of an accurate conviction is seriously diminished.”[12]

Mercifully, the federal judiciary has held unmistakably that the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on executing mentally retarded people applies retroactively to all cases because it places the Government’s ability to execute a certain class of people beyond the Government’s power.[13]  Consequently, there is no doubt that both the Tennessee Supreme Court’s December 2001 decision prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded people and the U.S. Supreme Court’s similar June 2002 decision apply retroactively to Mr. Payne.  Accordingly, one might be forgiven for believing that Mr. Payne would be entitled to a hearing on his mental retardation claim.

Unfortunately for Mr. Payne, however, the aforementioned statute that allows defendants to “re-open” their post-conviction petitions when a new rule is retroactive also provides that even “if retrospective application of [a] right is required,” the petition to re-open the case “must be filed within one (1) year of the ruling of the highest state appellate court or the United States supreme court establishing a constitutional right that was not recognized as existing at the time of trial[.]”[14]  Whether it violates fundamental fairness to apply such a strict time limitation—or any time limitation—to mentally retarded people; and whether the Government is even permitted to leverage short, strict statutes of limitations in order to insulate itself from otherwise meritorious claims that the Government is attempting to act in excess of its constitutional authority are serious questions for another day.  In this case, however, because Mr. Payne did not file his post-conviction petition until 2012, the court held that his claim was time-barred.  Had he filed his claim at any time between December 2001 and June 2003, though, then there is absolutely no question that he would have been granted relief.

Undiscouraged, Mr. Payne’s attorneys also attempted to use the U.S. Supreme Court’s more recent decision in Hall v. Florida as the “hook” to allow him to get back into court.  In Hall—which was decided in May 2014—the Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty statute because it failed to account for standard error in a defendant’s IQ scores.  According to the Supreme Court, such a rigid requirement “misuse[d] IQ score on its own terms[.]”[15]  Thus, following Hall, “when a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits.”[16]

Consequently, the question for Mr. Payne became whether the rule announced in Hall was retroactive, too.  Given its recency, only two courts in the United States had addressed this issue at the time that Mr. Payne’s case was heard, and each reached a bitterly contested, 2-1 decision under the time-pressure of an imminent execution.[17]  In both cases, a two-judge majority concluded that Hall was not retroactive because it merely established new procedures for determining whether a defendant was mentally retarded, rather than establishing another substantive restriction on punishment.

There are, however, strong reasons to doubt this claim.  Most convincingly, Hall unquestionably restricted the universe of people that the Government is permitted to execute—a result that bears all the hallmarks of a substantive ruling.  Specifically, before Hall, individuals with an IQ above 70 were subject to being executed.  After Hall, however, some number of individuals with an IQ above 70 are constitutionally prohibited from being executed.  Like Atkins, such a result is one of substance in that it “prohibit[s] a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.”[18]

Unfortunately, the Tennessee Supreme Court did not engage any of this analysis.  Instead, it merely held that because Mr. Payne was unable to identify any “federal appellate decision holding that Hall must be applied retroactively to cases on collateral review,” the court “decline[d] to hold that Hall applies retroactively.”  Consequently, Mr. Payne was not permitted to re-open his post-conviction proceeding on the basis of Hall’s retroactivity, either.

c.  Writ of Error Coram Nobis

As an alternative to the post-conviction statute, Mr. Payne’s attorneys also filed a petition for writ of error coram nobis.  Historically, the common law writ of error coram nobis has served as a “gap-filler” which was invoked “to rectify a recognized wrong when all other possible remedies are no longer available.”[19]  In Tennessee, for example, the writ has been used to correct judgments upon the subsequent discovery of a factual error “which, if known at the time of judgment, would have prevented the judgment from being pronounced.”[20]

Subsequently, however, the Tennessee legislature enacted a coram nobis statute that significantly limited the writ’s application.  Among other things, the legislature imposed a one-year statute of limitations for coram nobis actions and restricted the relief that it provides to factual errors only (rather than legal errors).[21]  It has never been clear whether the statutory writ of coram nobis operated to replace and supersede the common law writ,[22] and indeed, the answer to that question is still not entirely clear even following the Court’s decision in Payne.[23]  Given the one-year statute of limitations contained in the writ of error coram nobis statute, however—and after indicating that Mr. Payne’s claim was more appropriately characterized as a legal claim rather than a factual one—the Court denied Mr. Payne coram nobis relief as well.

d.  Free-Standing Claim Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203

Positing yet another procedural vehicle for his claim, Mr. Payne’s attorneys also argued that he had a free-standing claim under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 (the “Intellectually Disabled Defendants/Capital Punishment” statute), which was enacted approximately one year after Mr. Payne was convicted.  In pertinent part, this statute provides that: “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, no defendant [who was mentally retarded] at the time of committing first degree murder shall be sentenced to death.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Payne, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court already ruled on the retroactivity of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 back in 2001.  In that case, the court concluded that “although the issue as to retroactive application of the statute [wa]s close,”[24] Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 only applied prospectively.  Disappointingly, the court’s analysis on this point completely failed to engage the question of whether Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 was substantive or procedural, which is traditionally what governs the inquiry under Tennessee law.[25]  Notably, the case also serves as a prime example of why the late Justice Scalia railed against the use of legislative history in interpreting statutes—which can frequently be manipulated to arrive at whatever decision a reviewing judge would prefer to reach.

Specifically, when it decided the issue in 2001, the court noted that during the 1990 legislative session, a specific amendment was introduced in the State Senate that would have explicitly provided that Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 applied only prospectively.[26]  The amendment failed and was withdrawn, which one might think would suggest that the legislature disagreed with it and wanted the statute to apply retroactively.  Not so, apparently.  After hypothesizing that “the legislature’s failure to clearly provide for retroactive operation may have been a product of oversight or may have been based on the assumption that no prisoner then on death row was mentally retarded,” the court concluded that “notwithstanding the presence of some ambiguous language in the statute and in the legislative history, there is no evidence of a clear legislative intent to apply the statute retroactively as required by the general rule.”[27]  Accordingly, the court held that Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 applied only to cases after July 1, 1990.

Revisiting this issue again in Mr. Payne’s case, the Tennessee Supreme Court reaffirmed its 2001 holding in Van Tran that Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 does not apply retroactively.  Yet again, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court failed to ask whether the statute at issue was merely remedial in nature, which this author finds somewhat baffling.  Interestingly, the Court’s position that the Intellectually Disabled Defendants/Capital Punishment statute does not apply retroactively also shifted from a “close [call]” to an “inescapable conclusion” in Mr. Payne’s case.  Regardless, however, the end result was the same.  According to the court:  “[Mr. Payne] failed to establish that he has a private cause of action to pursue his claim of [mental retardation] pursuant to the intellectual disability statute.”

e.  Additional procedures?

According to a footnote in the court’s opinion, Mr. Payne’s attorneys also claimed that he had a right to an evidentiary hearing on his mental retardation claim under three other procedures available in Tennessee law: a declaratory judgment action; a motion to vacate an illegal sentence; and/or a petition for writ of audita querela.  The court declined to rule on any of these potential claims, however, as the record before it did not indicate that Mr. Payne had yet tried to pursue them.  Even so, the court implied that these procedures would not allow Mr. Payne to obtain an evidentiary hearing on his claim of mental retardation, either.  Accordingly, the court concluded its opinion by “encourag[ing] the General Assembly to consider whether another appropriate procedure should be enacted to enable defendants condemned to death prior to the enactment of the intellectual disability statute to seek a determination of their eligibility to be executed.”

It seems extremely unlikely that the General Assembly will accept this invitation.  Accordingly, as far as mentally retarded defendants who received death sentences after 1990 (and who did not have the benefit of effective counsel between 2001 and 2003) are concerned, the constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment exist only in theory as a matter of Tennessee law.  Notably, however, this very likely does not mean that they will be executed.  Instead, it just means that Tennessee’s courts won’t hear the matter, and that federal courts will have to clean up the omission.

Read the Tennessee Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Payne v. Tennessee here.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at

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[1] 1990 Tenn. Pub. Acts 730, ch. 1038, § 1, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203(b) (2014).

[2] Sample v. State, 82 S.W.3d 267, 282 (Tenn. 2002).

[3] Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-103.

[4] Occasionally, defendants also encounter some threshold procedural obstacles to filing post-conviction petitions that prevent them from meeting this deadline (not the least of which is trying to practice law without the assistance of an attorney).  For example, although notarization is not required by statute, the standard form for post-conviction petitions inexplicably requires a notary, and prisons are often slow to provide access to them.  Additionally, incarcerated defendants generally require a minimum degree of cooperation from prisons in order to file a post-conviction petition by mail, and in some instances, prison staff have been rumored to obstruct inmates from doing so.

[5] Van Tran v. State, 66 S.W.3d 790, 812 (Tenn. 2001)

[6] Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321, 122 S. Ct. 2242, 2252, 153 L. Ed. 2d 335 (2002) (quotation omitted).

[7] Compare Meadows v. State, 849 S.W.2d 748, 755 (Tenn. 1993) (“we decline to apply the federal standard of retroactivity announced in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989), and hold that a new state constitutional rule is to be retroactively applied to a claim for post-conviction relief if the new rule materially enhances the integrity and reliability of the fact finding process of the trial.”); with Van Tran, 66 S.W.3d at 811 (appearing to hold that Meadows standard applies despite state statute adopting Teague standard); with Keen v. State, 398 S.W.3d 594, 601 (Tenn. 2012) (appearing to equate Meadows standard and Teague standard); with Bush v. State, 428 S.W.3d 1, 15 (Tenn. 2014) (expressly acknowledging difference between Meadows standard and Teague standard, holding that Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-122 codifies Teague standard, and holding that statutory standard prevails).

[8] See Daniel A. Horwitz, Twelve Angry Hours: Improving Domestic Violence Holds in Tennessee Without Risk of Violating the Constitution, 10 Tenn. J.L. & Pol’y 215, 232 (2015) (noting that “[r]ather than applying the comparatively broad retroactivity standard that had in fact been included in the Post-Conviction Procedure Act, the Bush court instead held that an even narrower [] standard–which the court summarily concluded that the legislature must have “intended” to enact based upon a pair of confused statements made by the bill’s House sponsor nineteen years earlier–would henceforth govern retroactivity law in Tennessee.”), available at

[9] See, e.g., Bush v. State, No. M2011-02133-CCA-R3PC, 2012 WL 2308280 *6-9 (Tenn. Crim. App. June 15, 2012).

[10] Bush v. State, 428 S.W.3d 1, 20 (Tenn. 2014).

[11] Id.

[12] Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 313, 109 S. Ct. 1060, 1077, 103 L. Ed. 2d 334 (1989).

[13] See, e.g., In re Holladay, 331 F.3d 1169, 1173 (11th Cir. 2003) (“there is no question that the new constitutional rule abstractly described in Penry and formally articulated in Atkins is retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review.”); Hill v. Anderson, 300 F.3d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 2002) (“In Atkins, the Supreme Court held at the end of its term that executing a mentally retarded individual violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. This holding applies retroactively; in Penry v. Lynaugh, when the question was last before it, the Court recognized that a constitutional rule barring execution of the retarded would fall outside Teague v. Lane’s ban on retroactive application of new constitutional rules because it placed the ability to execute the retarded ‘beyond the State’s power.’”) (internal citation omitted).

[14] Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-102(b)(1).

[15] Hall v. Florida, 134 S. Ct. 1986, 2001, 188 L. Ed. 2d 1007 (2014).

[16] Id.

[17] See Goodwin v. Steele, Nos. 14-3739, 14-3743, 2014 WL 11128597, at *2 (8th Cir. Dec. 9, 2014) (per curiam); In re Henry, 757 F.3d 1151, 1159-61 (11th Cir. 2014).

[18] Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 728, 193 L. Ed. 2d 599 (2016), as revised (Jan. 27, 2016) (internal quotations omitted); Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002) (“the Constitution places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender.”) (internal quotations omitted).

[19] Wlodarz v. State, 361 S.W.3d 490, 499 (Tenn. 2012).

[20] State v. Mixon, 983 S.W.2d 661, 667 (Tenn. 1999)

[21] See Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105; Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-7-102 & 103.  It is not clear that the criminal coram nobis statute – which mentions neither factual errors nor a statute of limitations period – actually compels this result, but the Tennessee Supreme Court has held as much nonetheless.

[22] To the author’s knowledge, the Tennessee Supreme Court also has never opined on whether a legislative effort to limit the application of a common law judicial writ would violate the Tennessee Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.

[23] The Court suggests that the answer is “yes,” however, holding that an earlier case containing language that suggested considerably broader coram nobis relief than the coram nobis statute provides “d[id] not provide the Petitioner with a common law remedy in coram nobis.”

[24] Van Tran, 66 S.W.3d at 798.

[25] See, e.g., Shell v. State, 893 S.W.2d 416, 419 (Tenn. 1995) (“statutes affecting only the method or the procedure for prosecuting or defending a cause of action may be applied retroactively.  A remedial or procedural statute is one that does not affect the vested rights or liabilities of the parties.”).

[26] Van Tran, 66 S.W.3d at 798.

[27] Id.

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 Affirms Conviction Despite Prosecutor Submitting Wrong Allegation to Jury

By Daniel A. Horwitz

The Supreme Court of Tennessee’s opinion in State v. Knowles presents an undeniably horrifying set of facts involving multiple allegations of rape of a young child.  Considered apart from the outrageous crime involved, however, the legal issue presented in Knowles was fairly straightforward.  In child sexual abuse cases where the jury has heard proof of more than one alleged instance of sexual misconduct, Tennessee law requires the prosecution to “elect” the particular offense for which it is seeking a conviction.  The “election” requirement serves at least five separate purposes, although the majority’s opinion only mentions two of them.

First, the election requirement serves to “allow the State some latitude in the prosecution of criminal acts committed against young children who are frequently unable to identify a specific date on which a particular offense was committed.”[1]  Second, it “preserve[s] a criminal defendant’s right under [Article I, Section 6 of] the state constitution to a unanimous jury verdict”[2] by ensuring that the jurors “deliberate over and render a verdict on the same offense.”[3]  Additionally, however, as Justice Wade’s dissenting opinion reflects, the election requirement also: [3] “ensures that a defendant is able to prepare for and make a defense for a specific charge,” [4] “protects a defendant against double jeopardy by prohibiting retrial on the same specific charge,” and [5] “enables the trial court and the appellate courts to review the legal sufficiency of the evidence.”[4]

In this case, the prosecution misidentified the factual basis for the charged offense by mistakenly “electing” to submit an allegation to the jury that all parties agree did not occur.  Specifically, the prosecution elected to allege that one particular sexual act had taken place, when in fact, the evidence clearly reflected that a different act occurred.  Unfortunately, this mistake was perpetuated in the trial court’s instructions to the jury, which read, in pertinent part, that: Continue reading Tennessee Supreme Court Affirms Conviction Despite Prosecutor Submitting Wrong Allegation to Jury

“Short Circuit” for July 31, 2015

Each week, the Institute for Justice — a libertarian public interest law firm that specializes in constitutional litigation — issues a fun “short circuit” newsletter summarizing the interesting U.S. Circuit Court opinions of the week (you can subscribe by clicking here).   This week’s summary, authored by John K. Ross, is re-posted below:
  • Fairfax, Va. nurse engages in sexual innuendo in the workplace. For shame! NLRB: Many staff members enjoyed the odd ribald joke. In fact, the hospital actually fired her for asking management—in concert with other nurses—for certain accommodations. D.C. Circuit: Agreed. Fun Fact: No union = no problem. The NLRB has jurisdiction.
  • To impose a penalty, in this case for late paperwork, four of six FEC commissioners must vote in favor of enforcement. Is it cool that failing to vote counts as a yes vote? D.C. Circuit: It gives us pause, but we need not resolve the issue just now.
  • Inmate Liaison Committee member at Fishkill, N.Y. prison files grievance on behalf of prisoners, is sent to solitary confinement for 90 days. Retaliation? Second Circuit: That’s a possibility.
  • Fifth Circuit: No new trial for a former New Orleans, La. police officer convicted of burning the body of a police-shooting victim to cover up the victim’s death in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
  • Litigation pro-tip from the Sixth Circuit: When challenging an ordinance that requires your client to mow the curb strip in front of his house, maybe don’t compare the city to North Korea, “a totalitarian regime that notoriously tortures criminal defendants, executes non-violent offenders, and sends those accused of political offenses to ‘brutal forced labor camps.’”
  • Should the prevailing party in a just-compensation case involving abandoned property receive attorneys’ fees even if the district court doesn’t feel like awarding them? In a word, yes, says the Seventh Circuit.
  • A strip club in Winnebago County, Wis., successfully demonstrates that the county’s permitting scheme for adult businesses is an unconstitutional prior restraint. Can the county regulate the club under a new zoning code, or is the club now a preexisting nonconforming use? Seventh Circuit: Now that the First Amendment thing is settled, let the state courts figure out the rest.
  • DEA agents seize $239,400 cash money from train passenger. He’s free to go; they don’t find any contraband. Gov’t: Sucks for you, guy. You don’t have standing to try and get the money back. Seventh Circuit: Yeah, no, he does.
  • In which the Seventh Circuit expresses concern about the reliability of drug doggies but gives no succor to man sent away for 20 years for cocaine possession.
  • Officers scuffle with detainee in Ferguson, Mo. jail. After subduing detainee, officers continue to kick and beat him. Blood gets on the officers’ uniforms, so the detainee is charged with damaging property—among other things. Detainee sues, alleges excessive force. Eighth Circuit: Contra the district court, a concussion, scalp laceration, and bruising cannot be considered de minimis for qualified immunity purposes.
  • Convict to judge: I hope you die slowly of a painful disease. U.S. Marshals to convict: We’re going to arrange for you to be mistreated. Eighth Circuit: No qualified immunity for the marshals. Fun fact: If you get invited to a “blanket party,” do not go.
  • Hawaiians challenge the “cabotage” requirement of the Jones Act, under which all shipping between domestic ports must be carried out by ships made in America and owned by Americans, alleging that it forces them to pay higher prices for goods.Ninth Circuit: Even if you had standing, which you don’t, you would still lose.
  • A 370 lb. mountain goat with a nasty attitude and no fear of humans menaces visitors and rangers in Olympic National Park for years, then finally kills a hiker. Ninth Circuit holds negligence suit is barred by the Federal Tort Claims Act’s “discretionary function” exception. Dissent: Doing nothing to protect the public from an unruly beast the size of an NFL lineman was not a “policy” choice—it was garden-variety negligence.
  • After having previously concluded that the First Amendment does not apply to a Florida prohibition on doctors inquiring about their patients’ gun ownership, a panel of the Eleventh Circuit changes its mind: The First Amendment applies, but the prohibition is still constitutional. (Interested in occupational speech? Read IJ’s latest cert. petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
  • And in en banc news, the Third Circuit will reconsider whether the government must file a forfeiture petition if it wants to keep 10 ultra-rare coins given to Treasury officials for authentication and then not returned to the owner.

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Tennessee Supreme Court holds that a special jury instruction is not required when a defendant is charged with kidnapping and robbery of separate victims.

By Daniel A. Horwitz

A special jury instruction is not required when a defendant is charged with kidnapping and robbery of separate victims, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held.

The Tennessee Supreme Court had previously held that in order to protect a defendant’s right to due process under the Tennessee Constitution, a special jury instruction is required in certain cases involving both kidnapping and a more serious criminal offense, such as robbery, burglary or rape.  The basis for this special jury instruction – which is known as a “White” instruction in light of the eponymous Tennessee Supreme Court case State v. White[1] – traces back to the Tennessee Supreme Court’s earlier decision in the 1991 case State v. Anthony.[2]  In Anthony, the Tennessee Supreme Court recognized that “the offense of kidnapping. . . at times ‘could literally overrun several other crimes, notably robbery and rape, and in some circumstances assault, since detention and sometimes confinement, against the will of the victim, frequently accompany these crimes.’”[3]

Stated differently, because “[i]t is a common occurrence in robbery, for example, that the victim be confined briefly at gunpoint or bound and detained,” the Anthony court expressed concern that a defendant could be convicted for two separate crimes –kidnapping as well as a more serious crime – when the defendant had only truly committed the more serious crime.[4]  In other words: “Where a defendant is charged with kidnapping and an accompanying offense involving some confinement . . . , there are appropriate due process concerns that the defendant could be convicted of two crimes—e.g. robbery and kidnapping—when he has only committed one crime—robbery.”[5]  More simply, as one Court of Criminal Appeals Judge once explained the issue:  “I do not believe the legislature intended robbers to be prosecuted as kidnappers.”[6] Continue reading Tennessee Supreme Court holds that a special jury instruction is not required when a defendant is charged with kidnapping and robbery of separate victims.

Tennessee Supreme Court denies inmates’ request to challenge constitutionality of the electric chair, but holds that they will have the opportunity to do so in the future.

By Daniel A. Horwitz

[Disclosure:  The author was represented as an amicus curiae in this case as one of twenty-two members of the Tennessee Bar Association, and he has previously written about and spoken about his opposition to capital punishment on several occasions.]

In the latest round of litigation over the constitutionality of Tennessee’s death penalty protocol, thirty-five death-sentenced inmates[1] filed a lawsuit against several Tennessee prison officials challenging the constitutionality of the electric chair as a method of execution.  The inmates’ claims in this particular case arose out of Tennessee’s “Capital Punishment Enforcement Act” (CPEA), which is codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-23-114(e).  Following nationwide difficulties securing the chemicals necessary to implement Tennessee’s pre-existing lethal injection protocol, the state legislature enacted the CPEA in 2014 in an effort to permit the use of the electric chair as an alternative method of execution should the requisite lethal injection chemicals be unavailable.

The Government opposed the inmates’ challenge to the constitutionality of the electric chair in part on the basis that Continue reading Tennessee Supreme Court denies inmates’ request to challenge constitutionality of the electric chair, but holds that they will have the opportunity to do so in the future.

Tennessee’s Double Jeopardy standard may be applied retroactively, holds Tennessee Supreme Court

By Daniel A. Horwitz:

On May 27, 2010, Terrence Feaster savagely beat his housemate, dragged her into a bedroom, tied her feet to an entertainment center, and threatened to kill her if she moved.  Mr. Feaster was subsequently arrested and indicted for his crimes.  Following a trial, a jury convicted him of voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, and false imprisonment.  Over Mr. Feaster’s objection, the trial court declined to “merge” any of his convictions, meaning that it did not eliminate any of them for being duplicative.

Approximately two years after Mr. Feaster’s crimes, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided State v. Watkins.[1]  Watkins adopted a new test for determining when multiple convictions for offenses that arise under different statutes must be merged in order to avoid violating Tennessee’s Double Jeopardy clause.[2]  Importantly, Watkins also expressly abandoned the earlier (four-factor) merger test that the Tennessee Supreme Court had established in State v. Denton.[3]   For various reasons, the Denton rule was more favorable to criminal defendants than the Watkins rule, which is now in effect today.  Under the current Watkins standard, courts must conduct the following three-factor inquiry to determine whether a defendant’s convictions must be merged:

First: “Tennessee courts must focus upon ascertaining legislative intent.  If the General Assembly has expressed an intent to permit [or not to permit] multiple punishment, no further analysis will be necessary, and multiple convictions should be upheld against a double jeopardy challenge.”[4]

Second: Continue reading Tennessee’s Double Jeopardy standard may be applied retroactively, holds Tennessee Supreme Court

No, the Double Jeopardy Clause does not prevent re-trial in the Vanderbilt rape case.

By Daniel A. Horwitz

Yesterday, Judge Monte Watkins declared a mistrial in the consolidated prosecutions of Cory Batey and Brandon Vandenburg, which have come to be known collectively as “the Vanderbilt rape case.”  Judge Watkins’ eight-page mistrial order is accessible here.  As explained in detail in this post from last week, Tennessee law presumes jurors to be biased when they give false statements or fail to be forthcoming in response to questions asked during jury selection, and under such circumstances, a new trial is appropriate regardless of the strength of the evidence that was presented.   In this case, the juror in question appears to have lied several times in response to a wide array of questions that he was asked during voir dire.  For example, in page six of Judge Watkins’ ruling, he explains: “[I]t would be difficult to believe that Juror #9 did not [recall] his involvement in a statutory rape case when sexual assault, rape, and unwanted sexual touching [were] mentioned over one hundred and four times during the course of voir dire.”

Following Judge Watkins’ mistrial declaration, several observers have inquired whether the Double Jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from re-trying the two defendants.  It does not.  According to the U.S. Supreme Court, barring bad-faith or prosecutorial misconduct, “a mistrial ruling explicitly contemplates reprosecution of the defendant.”  United States v. Jorn, 400 U.S. 470, 476 (1971).  As the Supreme Court has explained: Continue reading No, the Double Jeopardy Clause does not prevent re-trial in the Vanderbilt rape case.

SCOTUS Decision Day Roundup: A Criminal Justice and First Amendment Jubilee

By Daniel A. Horwitz

The Supreme Court of the United States issued six opinions today, several of which may affect the development of Tennessee law or pending Tennessee cases.  The day’s opinions were largely centered on criminal justice and first amendment issues, and their holdings were as follows: Continue reading SCOTUS Decision Day Roundup: A Criminal Justice and First Amendment Jubilee