Supreme Court Rules Tossing Murder Weapon in Plain View Near Crime Scene Not Tampering With Evidence

June 20, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld a Memphis man’s conviction for first-degree murder, but reversed his conviction for tampering with physical evidence.

Ledarren Hawkins fatally shot Jerome Ellington during a gang fight in a parking lot in Jackson, Tennessee. As he fled the scene, he tossed the murder weapon, a shotgun, over a short metal fence that surrounded a nearby miniature golf course. At trial, Mr. Hawkins argued that he shot in self-defense, but the jury convicted him of first-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence. Mr. Hawkins appealed both convictions.

The statute that criminalizes tampering with evidence requires, among other things, that the defendant must “alter, destroy, or conceal” the evidence. In this case, Mr. Hawkins’s shotgun was easy to see. The police found the gun quickly and it was used against Mr. Hawkins at his trial. Under these facts, the Supreme Court held that Mr. Hawkins had not altered, destroyed, or concealed the shotgun within the meaning of the statute.

Although the Court vacated Mr. Hawkins’s tampering conviction, it upheld his conviction for first-degree murder. The Court rejected Mr. Hawkins’s argument that the trial court should have instructed the jury to consider an alternative defense theory – that Mr. Hawkins acted to protect his friends when he fired his weapon. The Court agreed with the trial court that Mr. Hawkins testified consistently at his trial that he fired his gun in self-defense. Mr. Hawkins’s testimony did not suggest he believed firing the weapon was “immediately necessary” to protect a third person, as required by the statute.

To read the State of Tennessee v. Ledarren Hawkins Opinion, authored by Justice William C. Koch, Jr., visit the Opinions section.