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Supreme Court Reverses Court of Appeals, Reinstates Jury Verdict Rendered at 1:00 a.m.

Supreme Court Reverses Court of Appeals, Reinstates Jury Verdict Rendered at 1:00 a.m.

February 6, 2018

By: Federico Flores

State of Tennessee v. Susan Jo Walls

            This unusual decision arose out of a 2012 murder in Bedford County, Tennessee.  On August 8, 2012, the Defendant, Susan Walls and her daughter Dawn called 911 to report a theft at her home.  Upon arrival, the Sheriff’s Deputy discovered the victim, Larry Walls, Sr., murdered inside the home.  Sheriff’s Deputies immediately suspected Susan Walls’ and Dawn’s involvement in the murder.  The 911 call did not mention a murder, or anybody dead at all, Dawn gave her alibi to the dispatcher, the scene appeared staged, and Susan Walls’ call was odd in the sort of ways that trigger a policeman’s investigative instincts.

After what was likely a painstaking investigation, law enforcement pieced together evidence that showed Larry Walls, Sr. was the victim of a murder-for-hire planned by various members of his family and friends who evidently were sick of him enough that murder seemed like the best option available.

Upon arrest, Ms. Walls and Dawn initially denied involvement, but later provided statements accepting responsibility and putting the murder into context.  In addition to Ms. Walls’ and Dawns’ inculpatory statements, the prosecution possessed forensic evidence and they located the individuals that actually carried out the killing.  Ms. Walls was charged with criminal responsibility for first degree murder and conspiracy.

Ms. Walls’ trial began on May 5, 2014.  On May 8, Ms. Walls was rushed out of the courtroom and into the emergency room out of fear that she was going to have a stroke. Proceedings stopped until she was stabilized and able to return to court.  After this episode, Ms. Walls’ attorney suggested that the court recess until the next day, but he did not expressly raise an objection to the appropriateness of late-night proceedings until his motion for new trial.  Ms. Walls was eventually able to return to court the same day, but because of her medical emergency, the jury was not charged and instructed until approximately 6:30 P.M., deliberations did not begin until 7:13 P.M., and a verdict was not rendered until 1:05 A.M.  Ms. Walls was convicted and subsequently sentenced to life in prison plus twenty-one years.

1. The first issue on appeal was whether Ms. Walls had properly preserved the issue of late-night deliberations.  The Court of Criminal Appeals held that she did, despite there being no formal, contemporaneous objection, but the Supreme Court disagreed.  The Court found that because Ms. Walls did not raise a formal, contemporaneous objection and presented no witnesses at the motion for new trial to establish juror fatigue, the issue was not properly preserved for appeal.

2. The second issue on appeal was whether the jury’s late-night deliberations resulted in plain error.  The Court of Criminal Appeals thought so, holding that late-night deliberations should only be held in accordance with a finding of unusual circumstances, along with the agreement of all parties and jurors.  Again, the Supreme Court disagreed.  The Court ruled that the proper standard of review should’ve been abuse of discretion.  The Court ruled that because both the defense and prosecution’s proof was concluded, defense counsel did not raise a proper objection citing party or juror fatigue, and because the jurors didn’t complain about staying up late, the trial court had not abused its discretion in keeping everyone up until 1:00 A.M. and therefore reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals.

This case is odd in that the Supreme Court appears to really go out of their way to tell the Court of Criminal Appeals that they are wrong.  A grant of Certiorari to the Supreme Court is reserved for important cases that shape the fabric of our laws.  Whether this case ranks that high is questionable.  Ultimately, delaying the finality of this case for three years could’ve been avoided had the trial judge just added one extra day to the trial.  Hindsight is sometimes 20/20, but an appealable issue like this is obvious on the front end.

Federico Flores, Associate in the Knoxville office, focuses on Appellate Practice, Workers’ Compensation, Liability (Automobile and Premises), Litigation (Civil Rights, Insurance Defense and Property, Criminal Defense, and Immigration) law.


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