Tennessee Supreme Court Affirms Attempted Voluntary Manslaughter and Firearms Convictions

January 9, 2018

The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously reinstated a jury verdict finding a Knox County defendant, LaJuan Harbison, guilty of three counts of attempted voluntary manslaughter and three counts of employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony.

The convictions arose out of a shootout on the afternoon of September 7, 2012, near Austin-East High School in Knoxville. On that day, Harbison was driving a vehicle on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue with Arterious North and two other passengers. Carlos Campbell was driving a vehicle in the opposite direction with Laquinton Brown and two other passengers. Campbell stopped beside a group of students, and Brown got out of the car and approached them with a gun showing from his waistband. Harbison testified that he knew the students and believed Brown was robbing them because he saw them pull out their pockets and show their hands to Brown. Although Brown denied that he tried to rob the students, Harbison testified he and his passengers fired their guns in the air to protect the students as they were driving away. The occupants of Campbell’s vehicle also fired their guns as they left the scene. The occupants of both vehicles fired multiple shots, and police later determined that bothvehicles had been hit by bullets. During the shootout, a bullet fired from a weapon in Harbison’s vehicle struck and seriously wounded one of the students.

A Knox County jury indicted Harbison, North, Campbell and Brown on numerous charges. After a joint trial, a Knox County jury found Harbison guilty of four counts of attempted voluntary manslaughter and four counts of employment of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony. The trial judge sentenced Harbison to twenty‑two years. The jury also convicted North, Campbell and Brown of various charges, but only Harbison’s convictions were considered in this appeal.

Harbison appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which reversed for insufficient evidence one of his convictions for attempted voluntary manslaughter and employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony. The Court of Criminal Appeals also reversed his remaining convictions and ordered a new trial because it found that the trial court erred in denying Harbison’s motion for a separate trial from his co-defendants. The Court of Criminal Appeals further ruled that Harbison’s three convictions for employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony violated the prohibition against double jeopardy because Harbison only used one gun. The State appealed the reversal of the three convictions for attempted voluntary manslaughter and the three firearm convictions.

The Supreme Court granted the State’s request to hear the case. In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstated Harbison’s three convictions for attempted voluntary manslaughter and three convictions for employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony.

First, the Supreme Court ruled that the trial court properly denied Harbison’s motion for severance under Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 14(c)(2). This rule requires a trial court to grant a request for a separate trial if appropriate to promote a fair determination of guilt or innocence of one or more defendants. The Supreme Court noted that joint trials of defendants for charges arising out of a single criminal episode promote economy and efficiency. Under Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 8, a trial court may try defendants together when the charges against them are so closely connected in time, place and occasion that it would be difficult to separate proof of one charge from proof of the other charges. Here, the Supreme Court ruled that separate trials were not required for a fair determination of guilt or innocence based on a number of factors, including the number of defendants and charges considered by the jury, the non-complex nature of the indictment, the relatively short length of the trial and the similar evidence against the defendants. Harbison was charged with four counts of attempted first-degree murder, but the jury convicted him of the lesser charges of attempted voluntary manslaughter, indicating the jury followed the trial judge’s instructions and carefully assessed the evidence. Under these circumstances, Harbison failed to establish that he was clearly prejudiced by the joint trial.

The second issue involved Harbison’s convictions for violating Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-17-1324(b), which makes it a criminal offense to employ a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony. Harbison argued that his three firearm convictions violated the prohibition against double jeopardy because he used only one firearm. The double jeopardy clauses of the federal and state constitutions protect a defendant from being punished more than once for the same offense. The State argued that the three firearm convictions were proper because Harbison committed three dangerous felonies against three victims while employing a single firearm.

The Supreme Court reviewed the wording of Tennessee Code Annotated section 39‑17‑1324(b) and concluded that it was the legislature’s intent to punish a defendant for each act of employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony. The statute does not limit the State to charging a single count if multiple dangerous felonies were committed against multiple victims using a single firearm in a single criminal episode. Therefore, based on the language of the statute, Harbison was not subjected to double jeopardy by being convicted of multiple counts of employing a firearm during the commission of multiple, underlying dangerous felonies even though he used only one firearm.

To read the unanimous opinion of the Court in State v. LaJuan Harbison, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, please visit the Opinions section of tncourts.gov.