Supreme Court Rules Testimony Inadmissible and Grants New Trial for Defendant

April 24, 2012

Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court today ruled a defendant should not have been questioned by the State regarding prior assaults against her because the evidence was inadmissible. 

The case began after the death of Azucena Lopez-Lajuj, the daughter of Nelson Aguilar Gomez and Florinda Lopez. On March 3, 2007, Gomez and Lopez took their daughter to the hospital where medical staff determined the baby had been dead for several hours.  Gomez and Lopez were charged with two counts of felony murder and three counts of aggravated child abuse. 

Gomez and Lopez were tried jointly before a jury. During the trial, Lopez chose to testify in her own defense. On cross-examination by Gomez’s counsel, Lopez was asked questions regarding whether she believed Gomez could hurt their daughter. The trial court permitted the State to question Lopez about previous instances of domestic violence. The trial court stated that Lopez “opened the door” to cross-examination about Gomez’s assaults against Lopez when she testified she did not think Gomez could hurt their daughter. Gomez was convicted of two counts of felony murder and three counts of aggravated child abuse. Lopez was convicted of two counts of facilitation of first degree murder and two counts of aggravated child abuse.

The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and dismissed one of Gomez’s aggravated child abuse convictions due to insufficient evidence and affirmed the judgment of the trial court in all other respects. 

Lopez appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In a unanimous opinion, the Court ruled that the evidence of prior assaults by Gomez was inadmissible and that the parties did not “open the door” to cross-examination about Gomez’s assaults against Lopez. The Court reversed Lopez’s conviction and remanded her case for a new trial. 

To read the State of Tennessee v. Nelson Aguilar Gomez and Florinda Lopez opinion authored by Justice Janice M. Holder, visit http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/lopezf_opn.pdf.