For many Tennessee residents, the process of appealing a court ruling is a bit unclear. In order for an appellate court to consider an appeal, there must be demonstrable evidence indicating that a grievous error was made during the trial, one that had a large effect on the final outcome. Otherwise, even if the aggrieved does prove that an error did happen, the appellate court will consider it a harmless error.
"We need to be able to look at old cases, especially where someone is claiming that they are wrongfully convicted," says Assistant District Attorney Robert Jones, who leads the Conviction Review Unit at the Nashville District Attorney's office.
As you probably know, Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown. Brown, 30, was sentenced to life in prison after she, a teenage sex trafficking victim, killed a man who paid to have sex with her. Brown had appealed her life sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life behind bars violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. That appeal ended her in becoming eligible for parole at age 69 -- after 51 years.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. The court had previously ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional when applied to juvenile defendants.
In 1992, 24-year-old Lorie Lee Lance was killed in a house fire in Old Hickory, Tennessee. Claude Francis Garrett, Lance's boyfriend, was accused of setting the fire. Although he swore he was innocent, an arson investigator claimed that a set of large, irregular burns in the living room represented a "pour pattern" indicating the use of a liquid accelerant. A large container of kerosene was found in the home, which Garrett claims was used in a kerosene heater.
There have been developments in the case of Joe B., a former high school principal who was convicted of his wife's 1985 murder based largely upon bloodstain-pattern evidence that has now been discredited. Now 78 and in frail health, Joe is hoping for a new trial.
There are certain rules law enforcement must follow when setting up sobriety checkpoints or DUI roadblocks, but the Tennessee highway patrol failed to follow them in a 2012 roadblock in Harris County. Therefore, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals found the roadblock unconstitutional and vacated the DUI conviction of a Chattanooga man who was caught up in it.
When it comes to blood-spatter analysis, "expert" witnesses for the prosecution are often law enforcement officers with just a week of training. This was so in the case of Joe B., a high school principal accused of murdering his wife. He was convicted in 1985 based on flecks of blood on a flashlight found in his car, which a detective convinced a jury came from his wife. Now, the Texas Forensic Science Commission has concluded that the analysis was "not accurate or scientifically supported" and, in fact, "entirely wrong."
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits "excessive bail." Over time, courts have made numerous rulings on what constitutes "excessive," but our country still finds itself in the midst of a bail crisis.
What is ineffective assistance of counsel in a criminal case? Thanks to the Sixth Amendment and associated court rulings, criminal defendants are entitled to the assistance of counsel -- and that counsel is to be effective. However, the standards for determining when counsel has been constitutionally ineffective are hard to meet.