Tennessee Supreme Court Rejects Request For New Trial 20 Years After Rape Conviction

July 19, 2018

In an appeal from Shelby County Criminal Court, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s request for a new trial more than 20 years after his original conviction for aggravated rape.

In 1998, a Shelby County jury convicted Tommy Nunley of the aggravated rape of his thirteen-year-old cousin. In the years following the conviction, Mr. Nunley appealed the case and also filed numerous post-conviction petitions, all arguing that his conviction should be overturned. His efforts were unsuccessful.

In 2016, Mr. Nunley filed a pleading asking for a new trial. The pleading Mr. Nunley filed is called a “coram nobis” petition; the phrase “coram nobis” means “our court” in Latin. Under Tennessee law, a prisoner may file a coram nobis petition with the trial court if he has newly discovered evidence that would show that he is not guilty of the offense for which he was convicted, provided he is not at fault for not bringing the evidence to the attention of the trial court sooner.

In Mr. Nunley’s case, in response to one of his post-conviction petitions, the State produced a memo written by one of the prosecutors prior to Mr. Nunley’s trial. The memo said that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lab would not do certain DNA tests on the rape victim’s clothing. Mr. Nunley argued that, under the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brady v. Maryland, the prosecutor’s memo was exculpatory evidence —evidence tending to show lack of guilt—that prosecutors were constitutionally required to show him before his trial. Mr. Nunley claimed that prosecutors illegally withheld the memo from his attorney. Mr. Nunley argued that, had the jury seen this “newly discovered” evidence, he would not have been convicted of raping his cousin. For this reason, Mr. Nunley asked the trial court to grant him a new trial.

Without asking the State for a response to the coram nobis petition and without an evidentiary hearing, the trial court dismissed the petition, partly because it was filed long after the one-year statute of limitations expired. Tennessee law allows for “tolling” or suspending of the statute of limitations in some circumstances, but the trial court held that Mr. Nunley had not shown that he was entitled to it.

The Court of Criminal Appeals would not consider the statute of limitations because the State had not argued it to the trial court. However, it affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Mr. Nunley’s petition because the prosecutor’s memo was not “newly discovered evidence” that justified a new trial.

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court initially clarified that a coram nobis petition is not the right way for a prisoner to assert that his constitutional rights were violated under Brady v. Maryland. In Brady, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is a violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights for the State to withhold exculpatory evidence, sometimes called “Brady evidence” for short. The Court explained that post-conviction proceedings were the right way for a prisoner to raise a constitutional violation under Brady, and Mr. Nunley had already filed multiple post-conviction pleadings.

As for Mr. Nunley’s coram nobis petition, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that trial courts may summarily dismiss coram nobis petitions that do not show sufficient facts on their face, without discovery or an evidentiary hearing. Specifically, the Court held that timeliness under the statute of limitations is an “essential element” of a coram nobis claim that must be shown on the face of the petition. If a prisoner seeks “tolling” of the statute of limitations, the facts supporting the tolling request must likewise appear on the face of the petition. The Court overturned prior cases holding that timeliness of a coram nobis petition is an “affirmative defense” that is waived unless it is raised by the State in the trial court.

Applying this standard, the Court rejected Mr. Nunley’s arguments, affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss his coram nobis petition, and declined to grant him a new trial.

To read the unanimous opinion in Tommy Nunley v. State of Tennessee, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.