The Tennessee Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for Henry Lee Jones, who was convicted of two counts of first degree murder in Shelby County and sentenced to death. Because the trial court committed prejudicial error by admitting evidence that Jones had committed a separate murder in Florida, the Court reversed the convictions but ruled that the State may again seek the death penalty in the new trial.
In May 2009, Jones was tried for the murders of Clarence and Lillian James. Jones’s accomplice, Tevarus Young, who was charged with facilitation of the murders and was called as a witness for the State, testified that he was present during the murders on August 22, 2003 and provided details of the crimes. The trial court, however, erroneously allowed the State to present evidence of the subsequent murder of Carlos Perez in a motel room in Melbourne, Florida.
While acknowledging the rule that evidence of other crimes by a defendant is not generally admissible in a trial, a majority of the Court of Criminal Appeals had earlier held that the Perez murder qualified as a “signature crime,” a narrow exception to the general rule. Judge Camille McMullen dissented from the Court of Criminal Appeals decision, observing that the Perez murder did not meet the strict requirements for the exception to apply.
In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court pointed out the significant differences between the James murders in Tennessee and the murder in Florida, held that the evidence should not have been admitted, and concluded that a new trial was necessary.
Read the State of Tennessee v. Henry Lee Jones opinion, authored by Chief Justice Gary R. Wade.