First Degree Murder Conviction Reversed in 134-Page Opinion.

This month, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a first degree murder conviction in a massive opinion written by Judge Robert L. Holloway, Jr.  On appeal, the defendant raised thirteen issues:

  1. The trial court erroneously denied his motion to suppress;
  2. The trial court erred by excluding the defendant’s statements as hearsay;
  3. The trial court erroneously excluded testimony of the defendant’s crime scene expert;
  4. The State committed prosecutorial misconduct;
  5. The trial court erred by failing to dismiss the indictment based on law enforcement’s intentional destruction of exculpatory evidence;
  6. The State violated the defendant’s due process rights by failing to disclose his complete criminal record and agreeing not to treat him as a suspect;
  7. The trial court erroneously admitted a copy of a letter written by the defendant but not produced by the State during discovery;
  8. The trial court erred in its instructions to the jury;
  9. The evidence was insufficient to support his convictions;
  10. The trial court erroneously imposed consecutive sentences;
  11. The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion for recusal;
  12. The defendant is entitled to a new trial because of violations of the trial court’s order of sequestration; and
  13. Cumulative error deprived the defendant of due process and a fair trial.

This blog post will focus on the two issues that merited reversal.

III. Exclusion of Expert Testimony

The defense expert had more than thirty years of experience as a crime scene analyst, analyzing bloodstain patterns in thousands of cases.  Her extensive experience led to the International Association for Identification certifying her as a “Senior Crime Scene Analyst.”  Outside of the jury’s presence, the expert testified that it was more likely that the multiple people killed the victim, contradicting the State’s theory that the defendant was the only perpetrator.  The trial court, however, excluded the testimony because it was “outside her area of expertise.”

On appeal, Judge Holloway, Jr., stated that the expert’s extensive credentials and experience showed that she was highly qualified.  Further, there was not a significant analytical gap between her opinion and the data on which it was based.  Moreover, there was nothing in her methodology that provided grounds for exclusion, and her testimony would have assisted the trier of fact in determining whether the defendant’s story was credible.  Based on the foregoing, the trial court abused its discretion when it prevented the jury from hearing the expert’s testimony.

Despite the error, the State contended that it was harmless because another expert had testified that, in his estimation, “a single person could not have committed the murders.”  However, the second expert was an expert in gangs, not in forensic crime scene analysis.  Moreover, the crime scene expert’s testimony was significant because it would have corroborated the defendant’s theory that the murders were committed by multiple perpetrators, which was largely uncorroborated by other proof.  Therefore, since the trial court’s error “resulted in prejudice to the judicial process . . . [and could not] be considered harmless,” the defendant was entitled to a new trial.

XIII. Cumulative Error

The appellate court identified five errors that, cumulatively, denied the defendant due process and a fair trial:

  1. The trial court’s exclusion of the defendant’s testimony about Mr. Hill’s threat to him the morning after the murders as hearsay;
  2. The trial court’s prohibiting the defendant’s expert witness, Ms. Johnson, from testifying that the crime scene was consistent with multiple perpetrators under Rule 702 and 703;
  3. A constitutional violation of the defendant’s right to present a defense by excluding Ms. Johnson’s testimony on this issue;
  4. The State’s improper interference with the Defendant’s gang expert, Lieutenant Carter; and
  5. Prosecutorial misconduct in closing argument based on General Bivens’ statement that defense counsel and his staff had made up the Defendant’s story in the four years between the offenses and trial.

While some of these errors, in themselves, were not enough to merit a new trial, taken together, the court found that they called into question the reliability of the verdict and necessitated a new trial.

State v. Bargery, No. W2016-00893-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. Oct. 6, 2017)

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