Tennessee Supreme Court Holds that Acquitted-Act Evidence May Be Used Against a Defendant in Limited Circumstances

July 6, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court in a unanimous decision has held that acquitted-act evidence, evidence of a prior act for which a defendant was acquitted in a previous trial, may be used against that defendant in a subsequent trial if it meets the requirements of Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b).  This decision explicitly overrules the prior Tennessee Supreme Court case of State v. Holman, which prohibited the use of acquitted-act evidence under all circumstances.

Generally, the State is not permitted to use evidence at trial of a defendant’s prior bad act for the purpose of showing the defendant’s character or actions in conformity with the charged crime.  Rule 404(b) permits the use of such evidence under limited circumstances but only if the trial court determines, among other factors, that the evidence is relevant to prove some other material issue in the case.  When the defendant, Steve Jarman, was tried for the first-degree murder of his girlfriend, Shelley Heath, the State sought to introduce evidence of a prior alleged assault by the defendant against Ms. Heath to prove the defendant’s intent and motive to commit
first-degree murder.  The defendant already had been tried and acquitted of that alleged assault by a jury.  Following a hearing, the trial court permitted the State to present the evidence through testimony of the officer who responded to the scene of the alleged assault and Ms. Heath’s brother, who claimed to have witnessed the event.  The trial court determined that the evidence of the prior act was clear and convincing, relevant to prove the defendant’s intent or motive in the present case, and the prejudicial effect of the evidence did not outweigh its probative value.  After the State presented the evidence, defense counsel introduced Ms. Heath’s testimony from the prior trial in which she testified that she lied to the responding office and that the defendant never hit her, and defense counsel made comments on cross-examination and during closing argument alluding to the defendant’s acquittal.  Defense counsel did not request a jury instruction regarding the acquitted-act evidence.  The jury convicted the defendant of voluntary manslaughter, and the defendant appealed.

The Court of Criminal Appeals held that, under State v. Holman, it was reversible error for the trial court to permit the evidence of the alleged assault to be used against the defendant because he was acquitted of that offense at a previous trial.  The court reversed the defendant’s convictions and remanded the case for a new trial.  The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the State’s permission to appeal to reconsider the rule in State v. Holman, which categorically banned the use of acquitted-act evidence against a defendant at trial.

In a unanimous opinion, authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, the Tennessee Supreme Court overruled State v. Holman and reversed the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals.  The decision to part from its prior precedent brings Tennessee in line with the majority of state jurisdictions across the country.  The Court held that the procedural and substantive requirements of Rule 404(b) must be used to assess the admissibility of acquitted-act evidence on a case-by-case basis, and, in nearly all cases, the defendant should be permitted to admit evidence of the acquittal to the jury.  The Court determined that Rule 404(b) gives trial judges the necessary framework to ensure that the acquitted-act evidence meets the threshold for relevance and does not cause undue prejudice to the defendant while balancing the jury’s need to have all the necessary information to make decisions about the facts of the case.  Additionally, the Court explained that the trial court must instruct the jury about the limited purpose for which the acquitted-act evidence may be considered, upon request by the defendant.

Because the Court overruled State v. Holman, it held that it was not reversible error for the trial court to have admitted the acquitted-act evidence at the defendant’s trial for first-degree murder.  The Court also concluded that any error regarding the trial court’s failure to give a jury instruction was waived because the defendant did not request an instruction at any point.

To read the unanimous opinion in State v. Jarman, authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.