Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Standard For Late-Filed Error Coram Nobis Petitions

The Tennessee Supreme Court today affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s petition to consider newly discovered evidence, called an error coram nobis petition. The Supreme Court clarified that, if the error coram nobis petition is not filed within one year after the conviction, the trial court may only consider it if the petition presents newly discovered evidence that clearly and convincingly shows the defendant did not commit the crime.

In 2005, a group of men opened fire at a Davidson County autobody shop killing one person and wounding two others. Thomas Clardy was the only person charged and convicted in the crime. He was sentenced to life in July 2007.

Mr. Clardy’s convictions were affirmed on appeal. However, years after his conviction, Mr. Clardy was allowed to have a firearms expert re-examine bullet casings recovered from the crime scene.  The expert matched the bullet casings to guns used in later crimes involving two men, Dantwan Collier and Thomas Collier, who were never charged in the crime for which Mr. Clardy was convicted.  

Mr. Clardy filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing that the firearm expert testimony revealed a possible alternate suspect for the crime. The post-conviction court rejected this argument because bullet casings matching a gun used months later by someone else did not show Mr. Clardy did not commit the crime.  The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed in 2018.

Late in 2019, Mr. Clardy obtained an affidavit from Dantwan Collier stating he had never met Thomas Clardy and never received any property from him. In December 2020, over 13 years after his conviction, Mr. Clardy filed an error coram nobis petition, claiming he should get a new trial based on new evidence, the affidavit from Dantwan Collier. The Davidson County District Attorney agreed even though the petition was filed many years after his conviction became final.

Under Tennessee law, an error coram nobis petition must be filed within one year after the conviction. After that, a petition can be considered only if it presents newly discovered evidence showing the prisoner is actually innocent of the crime. Even if the affidavit from Dantwan Collier were found credible and true, the post-conviction court found, it did “not rule out or even seriously undermine” Mr. Clardy’s involvement in the crime, and did not show he was actually innocent.  For that reason, the post-conviction court held the evidence was not a valid basis to extend the one-year time limit, so it dismissed Mr. Clardy’s petition.

Mr. Clardy appealed, and the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed. It held the post-conviction court should have extended the time limit and considered Mr. Clardy’s petition. The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the State’s permission to appeal.

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court balanced the defendant’s liberty interest against the State’s interest in finality of criminal convictions. It held that the one-year time limit for coram nobis petitions may be extended only if the petition presents newly discovered evidence that would, if true, establish clearly and convincingly that the defendant did not commit the crime of which he was convicted.

The Supreme Court agreed with the post-conviction court that the evidence presented by Mr. Clardy did not clearly and convincingly show he was actually innocent of the crime. It reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals and affirmed the post-conviction court’s dismissal of Mr. Clardy’s petition.   

Justice Jeff Bivins concurred in the Court’s judgment but wrote a separate opinion, joined by Justice Sharon G. Lee.   

To read the Court’s opinion in Thomas Edward Clardy v. State of Tennessee, authored by Chief Justice Holly Kirby, and the separate opinion authored by Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.