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Court Clarifies Thirteenth Juror Review for Successor Judges

The 'thirteenth juror' role of a trial judge in Tennessee has garnered attention in the legal community in the aftermath of the 2011 resignation of a prominent Knoxville trial judge and the subsequent retrial of some high profile cases based upon interpretation of  thirteenth juror rule requirements. The rule in Tennessee simply requires that trial courts review the weight of the evidence in a criminal trial, as a juror would, and determine whether the court agrees with a guilty verdict. If the court does not agree, a new trial should be granted with a different trial judge (as a mistrial would be declared and new trial ordered if the jurors themselves could not agree). The rule is a safeguard to protect defendants in criminal cases against juror misconduct. But what happens when a successor judge must act as 'thirteenth juror' when he or she did not hear the trial? The Tennessee Court recently addressed the question in the case of State v. Justin Ellis, E2011-02017-SC-R11-CD (Tenn. 1-13-2015).

The defendant in the Ellis case was convicted of multiple felonies including burglary, robbery and assault. The original trial judge left the bench without having expressly ruled as 'thirteenth juror.' The defendant argued that the successor judge must grant a new trial so the successor judge could observe the witnesses testify in order to consider their credibility. The successor judge rejected that argument and affirmed the jury verdicts by review of the transcripts. But the defendant did convince a Court of Criminal Appeals panel to reverse that ruling and grant a new trial, finding witness credibility was an "overriding issue" and that the successor judge must see the witnesses testify.

The state Supreme Court granted the state's request for further review and reversed the ruling of the Court of Criminal Appeals. The state Supreme Court reasoned that witness demeanor was only one of many factors in weighing credibility, and that most of the factors to be considered, including the most objective ones, can be reviewed from the existing trial record and transcript. Only in the rare case where witness demeanor is 'crucial' to the determination of credibility should a successor judge order a new trial to review witness credibility.

The Court also noted that trial courts should either approve or disapprove of the jury verdict at the time the verdict is announced, which will in most cases avoid having to have a successor judge consider the question at all. The Tennessee Legislature has additionally passed in 2014 the 'Chris Newsom Act" which presumes a trial court has approved the jury verdict when the trial court releases the jury.

In the Ellis opinion, the state Supreme Court additionally clarified that there is a presumption a successor judge can evaluate the evidence from the record and that appellate review of a successor judge's decision (of whether weighing credibility requires a new trial) is de novo.

With this ruling and the 2014 'Chris Newsom Act,' we are unlikely to see another Tennessee criminal trial retried due to a successor judge needing to personally hear the witnesses testify to fulfill the 'thirteenth juror' role. The rule is still in place and trial courts still have just as much authority to grant new trials if they disagree with a jury verdict in a criminal case. But they will almost never need to grant a new trial for the purpose of making that determination.

For more information on the criminal trial process, contact Hindman & Associates.

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