Supreme Court Sends Murder Case Back to Trial Court After Juror Contacts Witness via Facebook

September 10, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that a trial court erred by failing to follow appropriate procedures after learning that a juror contacted a witness via Facebook during a murder trial.

William Darelle Smith was charged with the 2007 shooting death of Zurisaday Villanueva. During Mr. Smith’s trial in 2010, Dr. Adele Lewis, an assistant medical examiner, testified about the cause of death. Following her testimony, one of the jurors, Glenn Scott Mitchell, communicated with Dr. Lewis through her Facebook account. Mr. Mitchell and Dr. Lewis were acquaintances, and Mr. Mitchell complimented Dr. Lewis on her testimony.

Dr. Lewis informed the trial judge of these communications while the trial was still underway. Rather than taking immediate action, the trial judge informed the attorneys of the communication and sentenced Mr. Smith after the jury returned a guilty verdict. The trial court also denied Mr. Smith’s request to question the jury before they left the courthouse and later denied Mr. Smith’s request for a new trial because of these communications. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Mr. Smith’s conviction and life sentence.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals regarding the communications between Dr. Lewis and Mr. Mitchell. The Court decided that when communications between a juror and a third party are brought to a trial court’s attention, the trial court must immediately inform the parties and conduct a hearing on the record to establish the nature and extent of the improper communications and to determine whether the communications affected the outcome of the trial. The Court sent the case back to the trial court to conduct a proper hearing.

To read the State v. William Darelle Smith Opinion, authored by Justice William C. Koch, Jr., visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.