Court Upholds Sentencing Review Standards for Capital Cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, has upheld a death sentence for a Memphis-area man who was convicted of first-degree felony murder. While the entire court agreed that Corinio Pruitt was guilty, the dissenting justices would have modified the sentence to life without parole. The majority concluded that the sentence of death was not imposed arbitrarily, that the evidence supported the jury’s finding of guilt, and that the sentence was not excessive or disproportionate. In their separate opinion, Justice William C. Koch Jr. and Justice Sharon G. Lee wrote that comparing all first-degree murder cases would be more consistent with the Tennessee law that requires proportionality review and with the rule that capital punishment is not appropriate for all murders but is reserved for only the most heinous murders and the most dangerous murderers. The two dissenting justices also pointed to a 2007 American Bar Association study of Tennessee’s death penalty, which said that the limited pool of cases the court adopted in 1997 undercut the purpose of proportionality review.

Today's Opinions

Click on the category of your choice to view summaries of today’s opinions from that court, or other body. A link at the end of each case summary will let you download the full opinion in PDF format.

02 - TN Supreme Court
00 - TN Workers Comp Appeals
00 - TN Supreme Court - Rules
02 - TN Court of Appeals
02 - TN Court of Criminal Appeals
00 - TN Attorney General Opinions
00 - Judicial Ethics Opinions
00 - Formal Ethics Opinions - BPR
00 - TN Supreme Court - Disciplinary Orders

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TN Supreme Court


Court: TN Supreme Court


Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; William E. Young, Solicitor General; Renee W. Turner and John H. Bledsoe, Senior Counsel; James Dunn, District Attorney General; and Emilee Abbott, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellant, State of Tennessee.

Rolfe A. Straussfogel, Sevierville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Kevin Anthony Dickson, Jr.

Judge: LEE

The defendant, angry about the quality of the cocaine that he had purchased, procured weapons and ammunition and enlisted the assistance of two other men to help him confront the drug dealers and obtain a refund. After forcing his way into a cabin where the drug dealers were located, one of his compatriots¯whom the defendant had armed with a .45 pistol¯shot and seriously wounded two unarmed victims. Following a bench trial, the trial judge ruled that the defendant was criminally responsible for the actions of the shooter and found the defendant guilty of two counts of attempted first degree murder, and one count each of especially aggravated burglary, attempted aggravated robbery, and aggravated assault. The trial judge sentenced the defendant on these convictions, including consecutive twenty-five year sentences for each attempted first degree murder conviction. The Court of Criminal Appeals reduced one count of attempted first degree murder to attempted second degree murder, finding insufficient evidence of premeditation with respect to the shooting of one of the unarmed victims, and modified the conviction of especially aggravated burglary to aggravated burglary. The court affirmed the other convictions and remanded the case to the trial court for re-sentencing on attempted second degree murder and aggravated burglary. We accepted this case to review the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the convictions of attempted first degree murder and the propriety of the consecutive sentences for the attempted first degree murder convictions. We affirm both convictions for attempted first degree murder and the consecutive sentences.

With concurring and dissenting opinion.

Court: TN Supreme Court


Harry E. Sayle, III and Tony N. Brayton, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Corinio Pruitt.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; William E. Young, Solicitor General; Gordon W. Smith, Associate Solicitor General; James E. Gaylord, Assistant Attorney General; William L. Gibbons, District Attorney General; and Amy P. Weirich, Alanda H. Dwyer, and John W. Campbell, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Anne E. Passino and Wade V. Davies, Knoxville, Tennessee; Russell Cass, Daniel Greenfield, and Collin P. Wedel, Los Angeles, California; Eric Grant Osborne, Seema Kakad Jain, and Mary Schmid Mergler, Washington, D.C.; and J. Robin McKinney Jr., Nashville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and The Constitution Project.

Allan F. Ramsaur, Jacqueline Belle Dixon, and Paul C. Ney, Nashville, Tennessee, and David Miller Eldridge, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee Bar Association.

Erica Knievel Songer, Kathryn A. Blair, Khang V. Tran, and Thomas N. Bulleit Jr., Washington, D.C., and Dwight L. Aarons, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Team.

Mark A. Fulks, Johnson City, Tennessee, and J. Wally Kirby, Nashville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee District Attorneys Conference.

Anthony J. Dick, Washington, D.C.; Brian J. Murray, Chicago, Illinois; and Jeffrey S. Henry, Nashville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference.


A jury convicted the defendant of first degree felony murder. The jury imposed a sentence of death based on three aggravating circumstances: (1) the defendant had previously been convicted of one or more felonies involving the use of violence; (2) the murder was knowingly committed while the defendant had a substantial role in committing a robbery; and (3) the victim was seventy years of age or older. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-204(i)(2), (7), (14) (2010). The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. On automatic appeal pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-206(a)(1) (2010), we designated the following issues for oral argument: (1) whether the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s finding of guilt of first degree felony murder beyond a reasonable doubt; (2) whether the trial court erred in determining that the defendant had failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was intellectually disabled and thereby ineligible for the death penalty; and (3) whether the sentence of death is disproportionate or invalid pursuant to the mandatory review of Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-206(c)(1). On December 6, 2012, we ordered re-argument on the following issues: (1) whether the proportionality analysis adopted by the majority of the Court in State v. Bland, should be modified; (2) whether the absence of an intent to kill should render the death penalty disproportionate; and (3) whether the pool of cases considered in proportionality analysis should be broadened. Having carefully considered these issues and the other issues raised by the defendant, we find no merit to the defendant’s arguments. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

TN Court of Appeals


Court: TN Court of Appeals


Allen Woods, Larry D. Woods, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Cheatham County Board of Education.

Eric Kerwin Lockert, Ashland City, Tennessee, for the appellees, Michael and Tammy Adcock.


This is an appeal from a summary judgment order awarding the plaintiffs an easement across the defendant’s property. Because the order does not dispose of the plaintiffs’ claim for attorney’s fees, we dismiss the appeal for lack of a final judgment.

AUSTIN WELLS, a disabled person, by and through his conservator and natural mother Carron C. Wells Baker v. STATE OF TENNESSEE and DONALD ESTES and UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS FOUNDATION

Court: TN Court of Appeals


John Packard Wade, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Donald Estes

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter, William E. Young, Solicitor General, Joseph F. Whalen, Associate Solicitor General, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, State of Tennessee

Gary K. Smith, Karen M. Campbell, John McManus, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Austin Wells

Richard Glassman, Lacey Adair Bishop, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, The University of Memphis Foundation


A University of Memphis student fell down an elevator shaft while removing artwork following a required University function at property owned by Donald Estes. The student sued Donald Estes and Estes, LLC, the University, and The University of Memphis Foundation. Summary judgment was granted in favor of the Foundation. The jury returned a verdict of $4,103,720.00, and the fault was ultimately allocated as follows: the State 40%; the student 15%; Estes 45%. Based upon an indemnification agreement, the trial court found the State liable for Mr. Estes’ share of the jury verdict, or $1,436,215.20. We find that the trial court erred in concluding that the indemnification agreement indemnified Mr. Estes for his own negligence and in granting summary judgment in favor of the Foundation. However, we affirm the trial court’s admission of testimony regarding $410,000 in medical bills, its exclusion of evidence regarding the student’s alleged drug use, and its capping of the State’s liability at $300,000. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

TN Court of Criminal Appeals


Court: TN Court of Criminal Appeals


Lance Randall Chism (on appeal) and Jacob Edward Erwin (at trial), Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Zachary Carlisle.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; Jeffrey D. Zentner, Assistant Attorney General; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; Michael R. McCusker and Jose Francisco Leon, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.


The Defendant, Zachary Carlisle, was convicted by a Shelby County Criminal Court jury of voluntary manslaughter and employing a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony, Class C felonies. See T.C.A. §§ 39-13-211, 39-17-1324 (2010). The trial court sentenced him as a Range III, persistent offender to fifteen years’ confinement for the voluntary manslaughter conviction and to a consecutive fifteen years’ confinement as a violent offender for the firearm conviction. On appeal, the Defendant contends that (1) the indictment for the firearm conviction failed to charge an offense, (2) the evidence is insufficient to support his convictions, (3) the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on self-defense, and (4) the trial court committed plain error by instructing the jury that the Defendant’s statements could qualify as a confession. We affirm the judgments of the trial court.


Court: TN Court of Criminal Appeals


Vanessa P. Bryan, District Public Defender; Robert W. Jones (on appeal and at trial) and Vince Wilcox (at trial), Assistant Public Defenders, for the appellant, Norman G. Page.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; Tracy L. Bradshaw, Assistant Attorney General; Kim R. Helper, District Attorney General; and Mary K. White, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Judge: GLENN

The defendant, Norman G. Page, was convicted by a Williamson County Circuit Court jury of theft of property valued over $1,000 but less than $10,000, a Class D felony, and was sentenced to twelve years as a career offender in the Department of Correction. On appeal, he challenges the sufficiency of the convicting evidence. After review, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

Private Firm Hopes to Take Over City's Indigent Cases

The city of Philadelphia plans to retain a private law firm to handle all court-appointed defense work for indigent individuals at an expected savings of $1 million annually, reports. The issue is hotly contested, however, pitting the city and a lawyer expected to win the $9.5 million yearly contract against those who currently handle the overflow of up to 27,000 cases annually.

Lawyers, Judges Testify That Shutdown Hurting Legal System

A panel of lawyers spoke today before the House Judiciary Committee about the effects of the shutdown on the judiciary and access to justice. The judiciary, already grappling with budget cuts from earlier this year, will find it more difficult to cope if the shutdown continues, the Blog of Legal Times reports. There will be more delays in court proceedings and further demoralization of attorneys and other employees who have made sacrifices under the sequester. A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender for the District of Columbia, said he expects to see public defenders file motions to force funding or to dismiss cases because of the lack of funding, citing U.S. Supreme Court case law saying defendants have a right to the services needed to present a defense. Robert Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, also warned that the shutdown could have  long-term effects on the enforcement of voting rights laws.

Former U.S. Senate Candidate Charged in Murder Plot

Former U.S Senate candidate Thomas Kenneth “T.K.” Owens of Jonesborough has been charged with solicitation to commit first-degree murder, the Johnson City Press reports. Washington County Criminal Court Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood has appointed David Robbin to represent Owens, who allegedly plotted to have his uncle killed. Owens ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Bob Corker in 2012.

Shutdown Has Law Student Externs in Limbo

The government shutdown has left many law students in limbo, wondering how they will be able to complete their externships with federal agencies and fulfill course credit, the National Law Journal reports.  Of the 140 externs at American University Washington College of Law, more than 30 are either unable to work or will be unable to complete required hours if the shutdown continues. At Georgetown University, 44 student externs are out of work.

Lipscomb to Host Tenn. Premiere of Gideon's Army Documentary

Lipscomb University's HumanDocs series is hosting the Tennessee premiere of the documentary Gideon's Army on Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. in the campus' Shamblin Theater. A 2013 Sundance selection, Gideon's Army documents the lives and courageous work of three public defenders in the South, with the young attorneys mentored by Jonathan "Rap" Rapping of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, or Gideon's Promise. A brief discussion will follow the screening. Panelists include Dawn Deener, public defender for Nashville and Davidson County; Charles Bone, Bone, McCallister, Norton PLLC; and Randy Spivey, academic director, Lipscomb's Institute for Law, Justice and Society.  Screenings are free and open to the public. For more information, email Ted Parks or call 615-417-9382.

Manuel Will Run for Chancellor

Chattanooga attorney Joe Manuel on Monday announced that he is seeking election as Hamilton County Chancellor, Part I. This is the seat currently held by Chancellor Frank Brown, who is retiring. has the story.

Columnists Cover Retaliation, How to Handle a Neighbor's Tree

In this issue of the Journal, Edward Phillips and Brandon Morrow write about retaliation claims and how standards are more difficult under "Nassar" and "Ferguson." Don Paine tells you what the law is when a neighbor's tree's limbs and roots cause problems across the property line. Paine also reviews Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery.

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About this publication: Today's News is a compilation of digests of news reports of interest to Tennessee lawyers compiled by TBA staff, links to digested press releases, and occasional stories about the TBA and other activities written by the TBA staff or members. Statements or opinions herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tennessee Bar Association, its officers, board or staff.

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