Tag Archives: Constitutional Error

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

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

Juror Bias Under Tennessee Law, and What to Expect in the Vanderbilt Rape Case

By Daniel A. Horwitz

[Disclosure:  In a directly related lawsuit, the author filed an amici curiae brief in the Tennessee Supreme Court on behalf of several domestic and sexual violence prevention advocates seeking to protect the private records of the victim in this case.  The author’s brief – which applied only to the civil public records request filed in connection with this case by The Tennessean on behalf of a larger media coalition – is accessible here.]

In Sunday’s Tennessean, Stacey Barchenger provides answers to several questions involving post-trial criminal procedure in the consolidated prosecutions of Cory Batey and Brandon Vandenburg, which have come to be known collectively as “the Vanderbilt rape case.”[1]  Many of the questions that Ms. Barchenger answers in her column concern the alleged biases of one of the jurors who decided the case.  As reported by ABC News, Mr. Todd Easter – who served as the jury’s foreman – was “a victim of statutory rape 15 years ago, . . . but [he] never revealed that information during the jury selection process.”[2]  According to The Tennessean’s reporting, one of the specific questions that Mr. Easter was asked during jury selection was whether he “knew any victims of sexual assault.”[3]

Co-defendants Batey and Vandenburg have both argued that they are entitled to a new trial because Mr. Easter was biased against them but failed to disclose his biases during voir dire (jury selection).  In her article, Ms. Barchenger correctly explains that “[i]f the judge [agrees that] the juror should have disclosed the [fact that he had been raped],” then the judge will “grant a mistrial and set a new trial date.”  On Monday, the parties held an extensive evidentiary hearing concerning Mr. Easter’s potential biases, which will assist the trial court in ruling on the defendants’ motions.

This article attempts to provide a detailed summary of the legal questions that Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins will have to answer in determining what exactly Mr. Easter “should have disclosed” during jury selection, and whether Mr. Easter was legally biased against the two co-defendants.  Additionally, assuming that Judge Watkins finds that Mr. Easter was indeed biased, this article explains why Mr. Batey and Mr. Vandenburg are entitled to receive a new trial—even though the evidence against them can fairly be characterized as overwhelming.  Continue reading Juror Bias Under Tennessee Law, and What to Expect in the Vanderbilt Rape Case