TN Supreme Court Examines the Constitutionality of Two Murder Convictions and the Subsequent Death Sentence

TN Supreme Court Examines the Constitutionality of Two Murder Convictions and the Subsequent Death Sentence


The TN Supreme Court recently decided the case of Leonard Smith, convicted murderer on death row. The long case with a complicated procedural history began in 1985. He was convicted of murdering John Pierce in 1985 and of murdering Novella Webb in 1989, both occurring in the process of an armed robbery.

There were four issues on appeal. The first, and arguably the most interesting, is whether Smith was denied his Constitutional right to a fair trial at his 1995 re-sentencing hearing when his counsel failed to investigate and present evidence in support of his motion to recuse the presiding judge. Judge Brown, presiding judge over Smith's case, also served as a Prosecutor in Carter County. In May of 1984, Smith was indicted in Carter County for simple robbery and DUI. Prosecutor Brown (now Judge Brown) was assigned to prosecute him. Therefore, Smith was being prosecuted at the same time in two different counties for four crimes: the two murders and the robbery and DUI in Carter County. Smith appealed his convictions for the simple robbery and DUI but was denied relief. Meanwhile, Prosecutor Brown later became Judge Brown and presided over Smith's 1995 re-sentencing hearing.

When presented with these facts, Smith's attorneys neglected to investigate further into Judge Brown's involvement in the prior convictions to determine whether he had an obligation to recuse himself.

In determining whether Smith's counsel was ineffective, the Court looked to the United State Supreme Court's holding in Strickland v. Washington. Specifically, the Court in Strickland stated that the ultimate focus on the effectiveness of an attorney is "whether counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable." Judicial impartiality is a fundamental requirement in the guarantee for due process. Therefore, the test is an objective one: the Court examines whether the Judge is likely to be "neutral" or whether there is an unconstitutional "potential for bias."

The Court held that Smith's counsel were ineffective when they neglected to investigate or further pursue the motion to recuse. This ineffective counsel resulted in prejudice to Smith in that he was denied his right to a fair trial before an impartial tribunal. Particularly damaging to Smith's case was Judge Brown's involvement in the re-sentencing. As part of justification for a sentence of death, a judge should consider any aggravating factors such as prior violent felony convictions. Not only did Judge Brown know of the prior conviction for robbery, but he was the attorney that prosecuted Smith for that crime. This is clearly a situation that would point to a "potential for bias" by the Judge.

The Court examined three other issues: 1) whether Smith met the definition for "intellectual disability" and would thus be precluded from receiving a death sentence; 2) whether Smith's counsel were ineffective in their voir dire of potential jurors when they neglected to ask the jurors if they or someone close to them had been victims of a crime; and 3) whether the post-conviction claims Smith brought for the Pierce murder were barred by the statute of limitations.

The Court decided the lower courts should be given the opportunity to further examine whether Smith met the definition of "intellectual disability." The case was remanded back to sentencing. If found to have an "intellectual disability," Smith cannot be sentenced to death. Next, the Court decided that his attorneys were ineffective when they neglected to ask the potential jurors if they or anyone close to them had been a victim of a crime. The boyfriend of the daughter of one of the jurors was murdered in the recent years before Smith's trial. When asked if that would impair his ability to be impartial, the juror responded that he could remain impartial throughout his decision. Although counsel was ineffective, since Smith could not prove actual bias, he could not be afforded a remedy. Lastly, the court held that Smith's post-conviction claims were barred by the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations for bringing post-conviction claims is three years from the final action of the highest appellate court. Smith waited twelve years to bring post-conviction claims for the Pierce murder. The Court held this was obviously in violation of the statute of limitations and the claims were barred.

After all of that it might be difficult to tell where exactly Smith stands. Here is the rundown:
  • Smith's conviction for the Pierce murder are affirmed.
  • Smith's conviction for the Webb murder is affirmed.
  • Smith's death sentence was vacated, and the case is remanded to the trial court for hearings on Smith's mental capacity. These hearings are to be conducted by a judge other than Judge Brown.

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