top of page

Tennessee Supreme Court Abolishes Accomplice-Corroboration Rule

For over 150 years, Tennessee observed a common law rule that “evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction” when the conviction is “solely based upon the uncorroborated testimony of one or more accomplices.” State v. Collier, 411 S.W.3d 886, 894 (Tenn. 2013) (citations omitted).


photo of Tennessee flag and Supreme Court

Under this “accomplice corroboration rule,” a witness was required to testify to some fact, entirely independent of the accomplice’s testimony, which, taken by itself, led to the inference not only that a crime has been committed, but also that the defendant is implicated in it. This also required proof of a fact establishing the defendant’s identity. See State v. Bigbee, 885 S.W.2d 797 (Tenn. 1994). The purpose of the rule was to safeguard against untrustworthy accomplice testimony.

 

That all changed on March 7, 2024, when the Tennessee Supreme Court abolished the requirement that accomplice testimony be supported by other evidence.


In Tennessee v. Tony Thomas and Laronda Turner, a case in which the defendant gang members were convicted of triple homicide, the Court upheld Thomas’s conviction but determined that the evidence was insufficient to convict Turner, because an accomplice’s testimony was not sufficiently corroborated. However, the Court abolished in its entirety Tennessee’s accomplice corroboration rule. The Court found the rule “obsolete in a common law context,” noting that Tennessee was the last remaining state to observe a common law accomplice corroboration rule (Maryland having recently overturned its common law rule), and that every one of the sixteen other states that observe such a rule do so based on statute or criminal procedural rule. Thus, the Court reasoned, the legislature is in the better position to determine whether Tennessee should adopt the rule.

 

The Court held that, after the accomplice testimony is presented, the trial court only needs to issue a cautionary jury instruction. Until Tennessee adopts a pattern instruction, trial courts are to give the following instruction: “The prosecution has presented a witness who claims to have been a participant with the defendant in the crime charged. While you may convict upon this testimony alone, you should act upon it with great caution. Give it careful examination in light of other evidence in the case. You are not to convict upon this testimony alone, unless you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that it is true.”

 

The Court’s ruling is prospective only. Because the Court abrogated a common law rule altogether, as opposed to merely refining a standard of review, it determined that fundamental fairness requires that the change be applied only to cases tried after this decision.

 

State v. Thomas, No. W2019-01202-SC-R11-CD (Decided March 7, 2024).

5 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page