First-degree murder conviction reversed after trial court refused to admit co-defendant’s statements against interest

In an appellate win for Sparta attorney Michael J. Rocco and Spencer attorney Matthew S. Bailey, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a first-degree murder conviction in White County, Tennessee.  For my readers in the Upper Cumberland, you may remember this story as the Dollar General Murder.

The case involved two co-defendants who killed a woman at the Dollar General Store in northern White County and the defendant who allegedly set up and encouraged the murder.  At trial, the State showed that the defendant’s cell phone sent text messages to the victim that lured her to the Dollar General Store.  The defendant’s cell phone also sent text messages to one of the co-defendants encouraging the murder.  Seems pretty cut and dry, right?  If the defendant set up and encouraged the murder, why is the court of criminal appeals reversing the case?

Here’s why.  The co-defendant who received messages from the defendant’s phone told police that she had used the defendant’s phone to set up the deal.  Not only did she admit to having the phone, the co-defendant even corrected police on a specific detail that the defendant allegedly texted to the victim.  The detective asked the co-defendant, “[W]as anything said . . . in the text messages like I’m sending my girl,” to which the co-defendant responded, “[M]y lady.”  The actual text message from the defendant’s phone to the victim’s phone said “my lady.”  Furthermore, the other co-defendant and another witness saw the co-defendant with two phones the night of the murder.

At a motion in limine hearing, the trial court excluded the co-defendant’s statements as hearsay, finding that the statement against interest exception did not apply.  The trial court reasoned that a full confession was needed for a statement against interest.

On appeal, however, the appellate court noted that the statement against interest exception does not require a full confession.  See Tennessee Rule of Evidence 804(b).  It only requires an admission.  Here, the codefendant made five statements that were against her interest, and thus, should have been admitted.  Specifically, she (1) admitted that she used the defendant’s phone to set up the deal, (2) stated that she had the defendant’s phone, (3) claimed she pretended to be the defendant and that the defendant did not send her, (4) knew the specific content of the text messages sent from the defendant’s phone to the victim’s phone, and (5) claimed the defendant had no involvement on what transpired the night of the murder.  The court of criminal appeals analyzed each of these statements and determined that, while they were not full confessions, they were against the co-defendant’s interest because they implicated her in the murder.  Accordingly, they should have been admitted into evidence for the jury to consider.

Having determined that the trial court erred by not allowing the jury to hear the co-defendant’s statements that she had the defendant’s phone on the night in question, the appellate court then turned to whether the error was harmless or prejudicial.  “Improperly admitted evidence is reviewed under a non-constitutional harmless error analysis.”  To prove that a non-constitutional error is prejudicial, the defendant must show that the error “more probably than not affected the judgment or would result in prejudice to the judicial process.”  State v. Rodriguez, 254 S.W.3d 361, 372 (Tenn. 2008) (quoting Tenn. R. App. P. 36(b)).  In analyzing whether failing to admit the statements affected the judgment, the court noted that the defendant repeatedly claimed that she was not in possession of her phone on the night in question.  Furthermore, the co-defendant stated she had the defendant’s phone and that she pretended to be the defendant to set up the meeting with the victim.  Moreover, the other co-defendant and another witness testified that they both saw the co-defendant with two phones the night of the murder.  Finally, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals noted that there was no physical evidence linking the defendant to the victim’s murder.  In other words, it all came down to who had the defendant’s phone when the victim was killed.  Given the entire case hinged on that question, the erroneous exclusion of the co-defendant’s statements more probably than not affected the jury’s outcome and resulted in prejudice to the judicial process.  Reversed.

State v. Young, No. M2016-01149-CCA-R3-CD (Dec. 7, 2017)

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