Tennessee’s Supreme Court Takes Another Look at Accomplice Testimony

A recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Tennessee will drastically change criminal trials moving forward. In State of Tennessee v. Tony Thomas and Laronda Turner (No. W2019-01202-SC-R11-CD), the state Supreme Court reviewed the convictions in a triple homicide that took place in 2015 as they pertain to two of the defendants. One of the questions posed in the defendants’ appeal was whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain Turner’s conviction. Turner was convicted on the basis of testimony by an accomplice, who claimed that she was party to the triple homicide. Making a complex decision, the Court reversed Turner’s conviction while overruling the common law precedent for corroboration of accomplice testimony.

Previously, in the state of Tennessee, the common law held that a conviction must not be solely based upon the testimony of one or more accomplices. This rule, referred to as the accomplice-corroboration rule, maintained that an accomplice’s testimony must be corroborated by other evidence in order to support a conviction. If the corroborating testimony of the accomplice or other evidence fairly and legitimately tended to connect the defendant with the commission of the crime, then a conviction would have been sustained on the basis of accomplice testimony. The justification for the accomplice-corroboration rule is a need to safeguard criminal defendants from accomplices’ “ incentive to shape their testimony in a manner that could help them curry favor with the prosecution and the police” and tendency to make juries more susceptible to their testimony by their “status as a guilty party with inside knowledge of the situation” (State of Tennessee v. Tony Thomas and Laronda Turner (No. W2019-01202-SC-R11-CD)). Because there was no further evidence sufficiently corroborating the accomplice’s assertion that Turner participated in the triple homicide, the Supreme Court of Tennessee overturned her convictions and dismissed the charges against her.

While evaluating the accomplice testimony against Turner, the Court was also called upon to consider whether the accomplice-corroboration rule should be abolished. The State, also called the prosecution, argued that the accomplice-corroboration rule was out of step with Tennessee’s sufficiency analysis procedures and the accomplice-testimony procedures of other jurisdictions in the United States. The Court agreed to analyze this claim and ultimately decided to overrule the accomplice-corroboration rule.

Determining that the rule conflicted with the jury’s role as the finder of fact in a criminal trial, the Court now places the responsibility for determining whether an accomplice’s testimony is reliable in the hands of the jury. Tennessee’s Supreme Court was heavily influenced by a recent decision from the Supreme Court of Maryland holding that the accomplice-corroboration rule arbitrarily limits the jury’s constitutional role of determining whether a witness is credible. Trial courts should strive to disturb the jury’s role as fact-finder as little as possible. However, they still have the responsibility to ensure a jury understands the procedures and laws that guide a criminal case. Jury instructions are used to accomplish this. Following the presentation of accomplice testimony, Tennessee’s Supreme Court now orders trial judges to issue a cautionary instruction to the jury regarding the reliability of said testimony. Until a permanent jury instruction is adopted by the Tennessee Judicial Conference, the Court provides the following instruction:

“The prosecution has presented a witness who claims to have been a participant with the defendant in the crime charged. While you may convict upon this testimony alone, you should act upon it with great caution. Give it careful examination in the light of other evidence in the case. You are not to convict upon this testimony alone, unless you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that it is true.”

Wait a minute, though. If the Court overturned the accomplice-corroboration rule, then how come the charges against Turner were dismissed?

Per court order, the abolishment of the accomplice-corroboration rule will only be applied to future trials. The Court determined that it would be unfair to allow this ruling to be applied to past cases, because that would open the door for the State to “satisfy an evidentiary hurdle on appeal” that it could not clear during trial. In other words, the Court did not want prosecutors to be able to preserve convictions by relying (in appellate reviews) on testimony that should have been insufficient at the time of trial. This protects defendants’ right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

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Therefore, if a jury has already made a determination of guilt in your case, the new procedure for accomplice testimony will not affect your conviction. However, if your trial is anytime after March 7, 2024 (the date of the Court’s ruling), this ruling will be applied at trial. In sum, an accomplice’s testimony against you no longer needs to be corroborated by other evidence to convince a jury to convict you. If the jury is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the accomplice is telling the truth, then they can convict you upon that testimony alone. It is possible that this could change again in the future, though. The Court only overrules the common-law accomplice-corroboration rule, and acknowledges that the rule may not be obsolete as a statutory or procedural rule. The General Assembly of Tennessee may still decide to effectuate a similar rule in the statutory law.

Criminal law and criminal procedure are constantly being shaped by the decisions of Tennessee’s courts and lawmakers. It is vital that you hire a criminal defense attorney who stays up to date on the recent bills, court cases, and administrative decisions. Best & Brock, PLLC will skillfully utilize new rulings to reach a fair resolution to your case. To set up a FREE consultation with one of our attorneys, reach out by calling (423) 829-1055 or by filling out our online contact form.