Supreme Court rejects Harris appeal

By Thomas Wilson


   The Tennessee Supreme Court narrowly reversed a state appellate court's decision to return to a local trial court the case of a Carter County man convicted of murdering a Hampton woman more than 15 years ago.
   Ricky Jerome Harris was convicted of the first degree murder of Dolly Gouge in December 1987. He petitioned the state's Criminal Court of Appeals to hear his case, alleging the state had suppressed evidence when he was convicted of the murder.
   Justice Frank F. Drowota wrote the opinion joined by Justice William Barker. Justice Janice M. Holder filed a concurring opinion to Drowota's that tipped the court justices' opinions to 3 to 2 to reverse the ruling to return Harris' case back to trial court and uphold the trial court's dismissal of the petition.
   Harris' conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal in February 1991. He later filed a post-conviction petition in 1992 alleging that his counsel was ineffective and that the state had suppressed exculpatory evidence. The trial court denied post-conviction relief, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the denial.
   On Dec. 10, 1998, Harris filed a motion in the trial court seeking to reopen his post-conviction petition on the basis that his due process rights under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions had been violated by the state's failure to disclose exculpatory evidence material to his defense.
   The motion asserted that the petitioner learned of this exculpatory evidence only after receiving an anonymous letter in response to a newspaper ad the petitioner had placed in the "Elizabethon Star" seeking information about the case in August of 1998.
   The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that the motion did not state grounds for reopening under the post-conviction statute. However, the court voluntarily treated the motion as a petition for writ of error coram nobis and concluded that due process precluded application of the one-year statute of limitations to bar the petition. The Court of Criminal Appeals returned the case to the trial court to consider the merits.
   The state filed an application for permission to appeal, primarily arguing that the Court of Criminal Appeals erred, voluntarily treating the motion to reopen as a petition for judicial error.
   In Drowota's opinion, he wrote that the court conclude(d) that the lower courts correctly held that Harris' motion does not state grounds for reopening under the post-conviction statute. He wrote that " ... the Court of Criminal Appeals erred voluntarily treating the motion to reopen as a petition for writ of error coram nobis." A petition for a "writ of error coram nobis" used to protect criminal defendants against arbitrary and unlawful judicial action.
   However, Justice E. Riley Anderson wrote an opinion joined by Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr., concurring in part and dissenting in part to the majority opinion.
   Anderson wrote that he concurred that Harris's motion did not establish grounds to reopen his post-conviction suit pursuant to state law. However, he disagreed with the majority's conclusion that the Court of Criminal Appeals erred in treating the motion as a petition for the writ of error coram nobis. "In my view, the substance of the motion alleged grounds to be treated as a petition for the writ of error coram nobis and the majority of this court has erred in failing to address the important constitutional issue this case was taken to resolve," Anderson wrote.
   Anderson also writes that "a remand for additional proceedings is necessary" to resolve the factual issues with respect to Harris' petition.
   Harris alleged that the state withheld the identity of a witness, who was purportedly interviewed via telephone by a law enforcement officer investigating his case. Attached to Harris's motion were purported notes of the alleged interview, according to the case background.
   Case background notes -- characterized as unsigned and not including the name of the officer who allegedly conducted the interview -- indicate " ... that Ms. Corrine Hampton told the unidentified officer that she had car trouble at approximately 8:25 a.m. on September 8, 1987, on highway 19-E in Hampton; that Harris stopped and assisted her; that she had seen inside his car and inside the trunk of his car; and that she had not seen another person or a dead body anywhere in the car or in the trunk. Hampton said that she had followed the defendant to Sherwood Chevrolet, where he worked, and obtained minor repairs to her vehicle", all according to Harris' motion.
   The state maintained that this occurred between the time period of 8 a.m. and 9 to 9:30 a.m. In the petition, Harris testified that he did not commit the crime and that he drove from Hampton straight to Sherwood Chevrolet in Johnson City, according to the case background.