Impeachment by Impaired Mental Capacity

The Lysol Hound Murder

Beer has long been my recreational beverage of choice. I never cared much for mixed drinks. Perhaps the most exotic concoction I ever came across is found in a court opinion, State v. Barnes, 703 S.W.2d 611 (Tenn. 1985). Mix a gallon of water with a container or two of liquid Lysol and add Kool-Aid for sweetener.

Johnson City Lysol hounds Bill Barnes and Raymond Stroupe did that on a regular basis in 1983. On the afternoon of Sunday, May 29, they were in need of Kool-Aid cash. Barnes therefore invaded the home of Mildred Keys, 91, on Unaka Avenue. He beat her severely about the head and face, and she died several weeks later in the hospital.

Stroupe was the key witness for the prosecution, charged only with second degree burglary. The defense attempted to impeach him with records of hospitalization for mental illness, but the trial judge rejected the offer.

Justice Fones wrote the appellate opinion and stated the issue: "Is it permissible to cross-examine a key accusatory witness in a criminal case as to his mental state or condition, at a time relevant to the events about which he has testified or at the time of trial, for the purpose of impeaching the witness?" The Court gave an affirmative answer, with the caveat that evidence of mental instability must have existed within a reasonable time before the crime or the testimony. Stroupe had been at Mocassin Bend three months before the murder and again one month before trial. Consequently the jury should have been given the following information from the medical records: admission dates, history on admission, admitting diagnosis, discharge dates, and fact that discharges were against medical advice.

Although error to exclude, it was harmless error beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidence was sufficient to convict Barnes even if Stroupe totally lacked credibility.

The conviction and death penalty were affirmed. Before the sentence could be executed, however, Barnes died of lung cancer.

Today Evidence Rule 617 would apply: "A party may offer evidence that a witness suffered from impaired capacity at the time of an occurrence or testimony." But Barnes remains the leading precedent.  


Don Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law.