The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld the three death sentences of David Lynn Jordan for the first degree murders of his estranged wife, Donna Renee Jordan, Jerry Hopper and David Gordon at a Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) facility in Jackson, Tn.
On Jan. 11, 2005, Jordan shot his wife to death at her office in a TDOT facility in Jackson. Jordan also shot and killed Hopper, who was in the office with Ms. Jordan at the time of the shooting. After leaving the office, Jordan shot and killed David Gordon, a motorist who followed Jordan to the TDOT facility after Jordan ran Gordon off the road.
When Gordon accosted Jordan about the incident, Jordan removed a high-powered assault rifle from his truck and shot Gordon 13 times. Jordan then returned to the TDOT office and riddled his wife’s body with shots from the assault rifle.
During the incident, Jordan shot and wounded two other TDOT employees. He was convicted of two counts of attempted first-degree murder for the additional shootings.
In a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark, the Court addressed for the first time whether Tennessee’s rule of witness sequestration applies to capital sentencing trials. Under the rule of witness sequestration, which is part of the Rules of Evidence, persons who are expected to testify in the trial are not allowed in the courtroom to avoid being improperly influenced by the testimony of other witnesses. In capital cases, however, the Rules of Evidence are relaxed during the sentencing hearing.
Prior to trial, Jordan’s defense counsel sought a ruling to exempt Jordan’s family members from the rule of witness sequestration so they could attend Jordan’s trial and subsequently testify at his sentencing hearing. The trial court denied Jordan’s request, forcing his family members to choose between attending the trial and testifying at the sentencing hearing. Jordan’s parents chose to attend his trial, which prevented them from testifying at the sentencing hearing.
The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court had erred in applying the rule of witness sequestration in a strict manner, depriving Jordan from presenting mitigation evidence at his capital sentencing hearing. The Court emphasized that, “in a capital sentencing proceeding, trial courts must carefully evaluate any and all proffered mitigation evidence, utilizing any applicable Rules of Evidence only as guidelines rather than as mandatory strictures.”
The Court determined, however, that the trial court’s error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because the jury heard from other witnesses that provided the “essence” of the testimony Jordan’s parents would have given. Accordingly, the Court held that Jordan was not entitled to a new sentencing hearing because his parents were not allowed to testify.
The Court also found error in the prosecution’s argument during the sentencing hearing that the “angel of death” had accompanied Jordan during his murderous spree and that the “death angel” had written down the aggravating circumstances upon which the jury was to impose the death penalty. Although the Court held that the prosecutor’s “repeated references to an angel acting as a messenger [for the death penalty] were inappropriate,” the Court found this error did not affect the outcome of the trial, and therefore, did not entitle Jordan to a new sentencing hearing.
The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision to uphold Jordan’s convictions and death sentences. The Court held that the three death sentences were not imposed arbitrarily, nor were the three death sentences excessive or disproportionate. The Court set Jordan’s execution date for Sept. 27, 2011.