Supreme Court Says DA’s Improper Argument, Withholding Of Evidence Violated Defendant’s Constitutional Rights

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for Noura Jackson, a Shelby County woman convicted of the second-degree murder of her mother, Jennifer Jackson, because the Court found there were constitutional errors made in the course of the proceedings.

The Court explained that during the 2009 trial, the lead prosecutor impermissibly commented upon the defendant’s exercise of her state and federal constitutional right to remain silent and not testify at trial.

In addition, the Court said the prosecutor violated the defendant’s right to due process by failing to turn over to the defense a statement a key witness gave to law enforcement officers investigating the murder. The Court concluded that the State had failed to establish that these constitutional errors were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Jennifer Jackson was stabbed to death on June 5, 2005, in the bedroom of the home she shared with the defendant. Around 5:00 a.m. that day, the defendant reported to neighbors and the police that she had discovered her mother’s body. After the defendant gave police conflicting statements about her whereabouts at the time of the murder and about how she sustained a cut to her hand, the police began investigating the defendant.

The defendant was charged with first degree murder, but she never admitted involvement in the crime, and no DNA evidence or scientific evidence implicated her. The prosecution’s case was based on circumstantial evidence alone.

The jury acquitted the defendant of first degree murder but convicted her of second degree murder. The defendant appealed. Although the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction, the three judges on the panel did not agree on the rationale for their decision. One judge found no constitutional error. The other two judges found the lead prosecutor had violated the defendant’s constitutional right to remain silent but concluded that the error did not prejudice the defendant.

The Supreme Court concluded that the prosecution had violated two of the defendant’s constitutional rights: her right to remain silent and not testify at trial, and her right to due process of law. The Court explained that when constitutional errors occur in criminal trials, a new trial is required unless the State establishes that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court concluded that the State had failed to make this showing, and as a result, the defendant is entitled to a new trial.

The Supreme Court expressed concern that the prosecutor had violated the more than 100-year-old legal rule prohibiting Tennessee prosecutors from commenting on a defendant’s exercise of the right to remain silent. The Supreme Court reiterated a statement first made in 1984, which is that “the subject of a defendant’s right not to testify should be considered off limits to any conscientious prosecutor.” The Supreme Court also cautioned prosecutors in the Thirtieth Judicial District to comply fully in the future with the 50-year-old legal rule requiring disclosure of material evidence to the defense.

To read the unanimous opinion in State v. Noura Jackson, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.


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