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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, April 20, 2018

Supreme Court clarifies the retroactive application of new rules in criminal case




The Tennessee Supreme Court clarified when a new legal ruling issued after a criminal trial should be applied to a case retroactively and what standards an appellate court should apply to decide whether the new rule affords a defendant relief.

These issues were presented in Christopher Minor’s appeal of his convictions of felony murder, aggravated robbery and other charges, including seven counts of violating the criminal gang offense statute and his sentence of more than 60 years in prison for his participation in a robbery and murder in Madison County.

Minor did not challenge the constitutionality of the criminal gang offense statute in the trial court, but while his case was pending on appeal, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals declared the criminal gang offense statute unconstitutional in another case - State v. Bonds.

Minor then attacked the constitutionality of the statute in his own appeal, relying on Bonds. The Court of Criminal Appeals denied Minor relief, explaining that he had failed to raise the issue in the trial court and was not entitled to the benefit of the ruling in Bonds issued after his trial. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Minor’s case and reversed.

The Supreme Court held that a new rule applies retroactively to all criminal cases pending on direct appeal when the rule is announced. New rules still apply to pending appeals, even if a defendant failed to raise the issue to which the new rule relates in the trial court.

However, defendants who raise the issue for the first time on appeal must satisfy the five criteria of the plain error doctrine to obtain relief. Minor easily satisfied four of the five criteria. The hotly contested issue was whether Minor had established that his convictions and sentences under the criminal gang offense statute amounted to breach of a clear and unequivocal rule of law.

The State argued that Minor failed to satisfy this criterion because it focuses on the law at trial and Bonds was issued after Minor’s trial. On the other hand, Minor argued that appellate courts should apply the law at the time of appeal when answering this question, and based on that law, he satisfied the criterion.

After discussing three decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States - Olano, Johnson and Henderson - the Tennessee Supreme Court concluded that the circumstances of Minor’s appeal closely mirror those of Johnson.

In Johnson, the law changed between the time of trial and the time of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court held that under such circumstances, an appellate court must reference the law existing at the time of appeal when determining if a clear and unequivocal rule of law was breached.

As in Johnson, the Tennessee Supreme Court concluded the law had changed between the time of Minor’s trial and appeal, so the law at the time of his appeal, as stated in Bonds, controlled.

Because the appeal could be resolved by applying Johnson, the Tennessee Supreme Court found it unnecessary to adopt or reject the more recent Henderson decision, holding that appellate courts must always reference the law at the time of appeal when applying the plain error doctrine.

Applying Johnson, the Tennessee Supreme Court concluded that Minor had satisfied the five criteria necessary for plain error relief, vacated his convictions and enhanced sentences under the criminal gang offense statute and remanded his case to the trial court for resentencing.

Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a separate concurring opinion. Although Justice Lee agreed with the result the Court reached in Minor, she would have gone one step farther and adopted Henderson as the law in Tennessee.

Justice Lee opined that Henderson, requiring appellate courts to reference the law at the time of appeal when determining if a clear and unequivocal rule of law has been breached, is consistent with longstanding principles of appellate review, the fairness function of the plain error doctrine, and the text and purpose of the plain error doctrine in Tennessee.

Source: Tennessee Supreme Court