The Trial of Sabrina Lewis, "The Lady with the Vases" - Articles

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Posted by: Donald Paine on Mar 28, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2008

Journal Name: January 2008 - Vol. 44, No. 1

Dying Declarations

On Friday, July 13, 2001, Sabrina Lewis drove a killer to Always Antiques to rob and murder the proprietor, Gary Dean Finchum. She was convicted and sentenced to 21 years.

Sabrina had been casing the store for three weeks under the ruse of wanting to sell two vases. On the fatal morning she left identifying information: her name and a driver's license number and "two vases."

The dying Mr. Finchum spoke to Detective Mike Chastain:

Q. What lady?
A. The lady with the vases.

Q. Was she connected to the robbery and shooting?
A. I know she is.

The Tennessee Supreme Court reviewed her conviction in State v. Lewis, S.W.3d (Tenn. 2007). Justice Wade wrote for the Court.

Is a dying opinion ("I know she is") admissible under hearsay exception 804(b)(2)? Yes. When a declarant is expiring we should not quibble over such worldly issues. Also, Rule 701 on lay opinion makes an opinion "rationally based upon the perception of the witness" admissible.

But is there a Confrontation Clause barrier? No. Mr. Finchum's dying declaration was "testimonial" under Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), because a reasonable declarant would have believed his statement would be used in a criminal prosecution. Yet Justice Scalia allowed as how dying declarations probably are admissible anyway for historical reasons.

Justice Wade's Lewis opinion is perhaps most important in laying to rest a notion that the test of "indicia of reliability" in Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56 (1980), survived Crawford. It did not. Whorton v. Bockting, 127 S.Ct. 1173 (2007), so held under the United States Constitution. State v. Lewis, the present opinion, holds that Roberts is dead under the Tennessee Constitution.

Sabrina Lewis is where she should be as a Range III persistent offender: behind prison walls. You ain't no lady, Sabrina, with or without vases.  

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, Bickers, and Tillman LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law. He is reporter to the Supreme Court Advisory Commission on Rules of Practice and Procedure.