Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Standard Of Review For Claims Of Prosecutorial Misconduct During Closing Argument That Were Not Objected To At Trial

September 13, 2022

The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld the premeditated first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery convictions of Tyler Ward Enix (“Defendant”) in the killing of Kimberly Enix.  In October 2015, Ms. Enix was found dead in her apartment with forty-seven stab wounds.  At trial, the State argued that Defendant killed Ms. Enix and then fled the state with her car, her ATM card, and their two-year-old daughter.  

Under Tennessee law, attorneys have broad leeway during closing arguments, so long as they do not stray from the evidence, make derogatory remarks, or appeal to the jurors’ prejudices. During closing argument, the prosecutor in this case: (1) counted to forty-seven and pounded the table; (2) accused Defendant of breaking one of Ms. Enix’s cell phones; (3) called Defendant a “coward” for not running from police when he was stopped in Ohio; and (4) suggested that Defendant was fleeing to Canada after the murder.  Defense counsel did not object to the prosecutor’s conduct when it occurred during closing arguments.  Instead, he raised claims of prosecutorial misconduct in a motion for a new trial after the guilty verdict, which the trial court denied.

On appeal, Defendant argued that the appellate courts should conduct plenary review of his claims of prosecutorial misconduct because they were included in his motion for new trial. Plenary review is the type of review utilized on issues properly raised in the trial court.  Otherwise the appellate courts would apply plain error review, which is a more difficult standard for the defendant to satisfy. The Court of Criminal Appeals determined that plain error review was appropriate and affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The Supreme Court granted Defendant’s application for permission to appeal to clarify any uncertainty arising from recent case law concerning the appropriate standard of review to apply to claims of alleged prosecutorial misconduct during closing argument when no objection was lodged at the time of the alleged misconduct but the claim is raised in a motion for new trial. After reviewing the applicable case law, the Court clarified that failure to object to a prosecutor’s statements during closing arguments results in waiver on appeal and that the plain error standard of review applies to claims that are treated as waived.  Therefore, it applied plain error review to Defendant’s claims of prosecutorial misconduct during closing arguments and concluded that, even if the statements by the prosecutor were not appropriate, the claimed misconduct did not affect the outcome of the trial.  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision on separate grounds and upheld Defendant’s convictions.

To read the unanimous opinion in State v. Tyler Ward Enix, authored by Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.