Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Level of Proof Necessary to Establish “Serious Bodily Injury”

August 22, 2012

Nashville, Tenn.The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a gunshot wound does not necessarily establish a “substantial risk of death” for the purpose of proving that a victim suffered a serious bodily injury. 

On March 24, 2008, Terrell Westbrooks and Darnay Taper were in a Memphis apartment attempting to illegally purchase prescription medications when Michael Farmer and Anthony Clark burst into the apartment brandishing guns and announced “this is a robbery.” During his attempt to flee, Westbrooks was shot in the leg. According to Westbrooks’ testimony, the wound “went straight through” and he was sent home within an hour after being seen by the doctor. He also testified that he was given pain relievers after the injury and that at the time of trial he did not have any problems with his leg.

Farmer and Clark were convicted by a jury of the aggravated robbery of Taper and the especially aggravated robbery of Westbrooks. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the convictions. 

Today, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the State failed to present sufficient proof that Westbrooks suffered serious bodily injury, which is a required element of especially aggravated robbery. The Court concluded that when determining whether there was a substantial risk of death, which is one method of proving serious bodily injury, a jury must consider the injury that occurred rather than the injury that could have occurred or the manner in which it occurred.  Therefore, the Court vacated the especially aggravated robbery conviction, reduced it to a Class B felony aggravated robbery and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing. 

Justice William C. Koch, Jr., concurred with the Court’s ruling but issued a separate opinion to highlight the important role that expert medical testimony must play in cases in which the State must establish that an injury carried with it a substantial risk of death. In this case, the State did not provide expert testimony, and Westbrooks’ medical records did not convey the seriousness of his injury. Therefore, the State fell short of proving that Westbrooks’ gunshot wound involved a substantial risk of death. 

To read the State of Tennessee v. Michael Farmer and Anthony Clark opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, visit https://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/farmermichael_opn.pdf.  

To read the concurring opinion by Justice William C. Koch, Jr., visit https://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/farmermichael_concopn.pdf