Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Prejudice Should Not Be Presumed In Post-Conviction Case When Trial Counsel Failed To Timely File A Motion For New Trial

July 16, 2020

In an opinion released today, the Tennessee Supreme Court determined that, when analyzing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, trial counsel’s failure to file a timely motion for new trial does not require a presumption of prejudice, overruling the Court’s previous decision in Wallace v. State.

In 2014, a jury convicted the petitioner, Antonio Howard, of six counts of aggravated rape, one count of especially aggravated robbery, two counts of aggravated robbery, and three counts of aggravated assault, for which the Criminal Court for Shelby County imposed an effective 124-year sentence.  Following the jury trial, trial counsel for Mr. Howard admittedly failed to file a timely motion for new trial.  Because of counsel’s failure, Mr. Howard’s only viable issues on appeal were sufficiency of the evidence and sentencing. He also raised several issues concerning the admission of witness testimony. However, because he did not file a timely motion for new trial, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that he waived the additional issues on direct appeal.

Mr. Howard then sought post-conviction relief claiming, among other things, that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to file a timely motion for new trial. The post-conviction court denied his request, concluding that trial counsel was deficient for failing to timely file the motion but that Mr. Howard was not prejudiced. The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, relied on Wallace v. State and held that, because it was apparent from the record that Mr. Howard intended to file a motion for new trial, he was presumptively prejudiced by trial counsel’s deficient performance. Therefore, the intermediate court concluded that Mr. Howard was entitled to post-conviction relief in the form of a delayed appeal. The Supreme Court granted review.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court expressly overruled its previous holding in Wallace v. State that, when a defendant indicates a desire to appeal, trial counsel’s failure to file a timely motion for new trial is presumptively prejudicial. It explained that, while a presumption of prejudice is appropriate for claims involving the complete denial of an appeal, the petitioner in this case—as well as the petitioner in Wallace—received meaningful review on direct appeal and complained of waiver of only certain issues. The Court concluded that, because the petitioner was not completely denied a direct appeal, the post-conviction court appropriately required him to demonstrate actual prejudice. Further, the Court found no error in the post-conviction court’s conclusion that Mr. Howard was not prejudiced by trial counsel’s deficiency. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstated the judgment of the post-conviction court denying post-conviction relief.

To read the unanimous opinion in Antonio Howard v. State, authored by Justice Roger A. Page, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.