Tennessee Supreme Court Abolishes Court Rule Requiring Corroboration of Accomplice Testimony

The Tennessee Supreme Court has abolished a common law rule that required testimony of a criminal defendant’s accomplice to be supported by other evidence.  The Court’s opinion abolished the accomplice-corroboration rule prospectively, which means only in future cases.  As part of that decision, the Court upheld the first-degree premeditated murder convictions of Mr. Tony Thomas, but overturned the first-degree premeditated murder convictions of Ms. Laronda Turner.

Three individuals, Mr. Thomas, Ms. Turner, and Mr. Demarco Hawkins, were charged with murder months after Mr. Anthony Isom, Ms. Chastity Springfield, and Mr. Michael Glover were murdered in Mr. Isom’s Memphis home in September of 2015.  Mr. Hawkins confessed to participating in the murders.  As an accomplice to the murders, Mr. Hawkins eventually testified against Mr. Thomas and Ms. Turner at trial.  All three defendants, and two of the three victims (except Ms. Springfield), were members of the Vicelords, one of the oldest and largest street gangs in the United States.

Following a jury trial, both Mr. Thomas and Ms. Turner were convicted of three counts of first-degree premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison on each count.  All convictions were affirmed by the Court of Criminal Appeals, but one judge dissented.  The dissenting judge disagreed with the majority’s conclusions that the evidence presented was sufficient to convict Ms. Turner of murder, and further disputed the majority’s conclusion that the State had not committed a Brady violation.  The Supreme Court granted Mr. Thomas and Ms. Turner’s application for permission to appeal, but limited the appeal to the two issues that divided the intermediate appellate court.

First, the Supreme Court reviewed the State’s argument that the common law accomplice-corroboration rule should be abolished in Tennessee.  That rule dictates that the testimony of an accomplice alone is insufficient to convict a defendant of a crime.  The majority concluded that the accomplice-corroboration rule is effectively obsolete as a common law rule and that the General Assembly is better equipped to decide whether such a rule should exist in Tennessee.  Additionally, a majority of the Court agreed to abolish the accomplice-corroboration rule on a prospective-only basis.  The majority reasoned that the Court should exercise its discretion to apply its decision prospectively in the interest of fairness.

Applying the accomplice-corroboration rule to Ms. Turner’s murder convictions, a majority of the Court held that the State had not adequately corroborated Mr. Hawkins’ testimony, and, thus, the evidence was insufficient to support the guilty verdicts.  Because Mr. Hawkins’ testimony had not been sufficiently corroborated by other evidence, the Court reversed Ms. Turner’s convictions and dismissed the charges against her.

Although the Court agreed to hear the Brady disclosure rule challenges from both Mr. Thomas and Ms. Turner, the Court did not reach Ms. Turner’s Brady challenge because of its holding on the sufficiency of the evidence issue.  Mr. Thomas’ Brady challenge alleged that the State violated Brady by failing to disclose inconsistent statements made by Mr. Hawkins during proffer sessions before trial.  The Court unanimously agreed that Mr. Thomas had not proven that the information contained in the proffer statements was “material,” because Mr. Thomas could not prove that there was a “reasonable probability” that earlier access to the information would have led to a different outcome in the trial court.  As a result, the Court affirmed Mr. Thomas’ convictions.

Justice Sharon G. Lee concurred in part and dissented in part.  Justice Lee agreed with the majority that Mr. Thomas’ convictions should be affirmed and that the evidence was insufficient to support Ms. Turner’s convictions.  Justice Lee disagreed with the abolishment of the accomplice-corroboration rule because the rule has long served to safeguard against untrustworthy accomplice testimony.  In her view, the Court cedes too much ground to the Legislature as the Court is in a better position to know if the rule is needed.  However, Justice Lee agreed that, in the interests of fairness, the abolishment of the rule is a significant change in the law and should only be applied in cases tried after the filing of the Court’s decision.

Justice Sarah K. Campbell also filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.  Justice Campbell agreed with the Court’s affirmance of Mr. Thomas’ convictions and much of the Court’s analysis regarding the accomplice-corroboration rule, but she disagreed with the majority’s decision to abolish the rule on a prospective, rather than a retroactive, basis and would have affirmed Ms. Turner’s conviction.  In Justice Campbell’s view, the Court’s decision abolishing the accomplice-corroboration rule should apply retroactively in this case and other pending cases because that approach is consistent with the historical role of the judiciary, adheres to the Court’s precedents, and constrains judicial discretion.

To read the majority opinion in State of Tennessee v. Tony Thomas and Laronda Turner, authored by Justice Jeff Bivins, and the separate opinions, authored by Justices Sharon G. Lee and Sarah K. Campbell, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.