Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Trial Court’s Admission Of Testimony Regarding Non-Testifying Co-Defendant’s Statements Did Not Amount To Reversible Error

February 25, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court today affirmed the convictions of Alexander Vance despite the trial court’s error in admitting testimony at trial regarding a non-testifying co-defendant.

Mr. Vance and another co-defendant, Damonta Meneese, were tried jointly for the murder of Stephen Milliken.  A third co-defendant was severed from the case because of issues regarding his competency to stand trial.  This third defendant made pre-trial statements to police that implicated Mr. Vance and Mr. Meneese in the murder.  Mr. Vance’s counsel filed a motion to exclude any of the third party’s statements because of questions regarding the party’s ability to provide “competent testimony.”  The trial court granted the motion. 

During the trial, the State requested permission to ask a detective about the third party’s statements to police, arguing that defense counsel opened the door to the statements on cross-examination by implying only one witness had provided information regarding the defendants’ involvement in the alleged crime.  Mr. Vance objected on hearsay grounds.  The trial court allowed the State to ask a limited question, specifically tailored toward informing the jury that there was another party who identified the defendants as participants without sharing the third party’s identity or the specific content of the statement.  The third party was not called as a witness in the trial. 

Both defendants were convicted, and the trial court sentenced each defendant to life imprisonment plus 21 years.  In Mr. Vance’s motion for a new trial, he challenged the trial court’s admission of testimony regarding the third party’s statements, arguing for the first time that the testimony violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses.  The trial court denied the motion for new trial.

The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the judgments, and Mr. Vance filed an application for permission to appeal, which the Tennessee Supreme Court granted.  Before the Supreme Court, Mr. Vance argued that the trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him when it allowed the State to admit inculpatory statements by a non-testifying witness—the third defendant—under the doctrine of curative admissibility.  The Supreme Court requested that two additional issues be addressed by both parties: (1) whether plenary or plain error review applies to the constitutional ground, when Mr. Vance included it in his motion for new trial but contemporaneously objected only on other grounds; and (2) whether the admissibility of the evidence is controlled by the doctrine of curative admissibility.

In the unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, the Court first addressed the distinction between the doctrine of curative admissibility and the separate concept of “opening the door.”  The Court determined that the doctrine of curative admissibility did not apply under the facts of this case.  On the other hand, the Court did agree that the defendants had opened the door to some type of additional proof by the State regarding the misleading impression created by defense counsel.  The Court, however, ruled that the specific testimony allowed by the trial court was not appropriate.  The Court held that the prejudicial impact of the detective’s testimony substantially outweighed the misleading impression created by defense counsel on cross-examination.

The Court then addressed whether plenary review or plain error review applied under the facts of this case to determine if Mr. Vance was entitled to relief from the trial court’s error.  The Court held that Mr. Vance was only entitled to plain error review because he did not raise the constitutional objection until his motion for new trial.  This deprived the trial court of having an opportunity to rule on the constitutional ground during the trial.  As a result of plain error review, the Court concluded that the jury probably would have convicted Mr. Vance based on the other proof presented at trial. Therefore, substantial justice did not require reversal of Mr. Vance’s convictions.

To read the Court’s unanimous opinion in State of Tennessee v. Alexander R. Vance and Damonta M. Meneese, authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.