Yesterday, the CCA Eastern Section, reversed trial court findings in State v. Curtis Harper, holding that the court had abused its discretion regarding the admission of prejudicial photographs of the victims’ bodies and the crime scene. Harper, a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee, made local news in the May 2012, after he hit and killed a 45 year-old Good Samaritan (Soto), a pregnant 27 year-old woman (Thornell), and her unborn fetus. The victims were assisting Thornell’s friend (Tinder) after she ran out of gas on Washington Pike.
The story is tragic. As a defense attorney, these are the cases you dread because no one is a winner – innocent, lovable people killed while simply trying to help another person. If there was ever a case that serves as a warning against drunk driving or reckless driving – this is THAT case. The woman was hit so hard by the defendant’s vehicle that her baby (22 weeks-old) was expelled from her stomach. It’s gruesome to even think about, just imagine seeing the photographs. And it was the admission of those pictures that resulted in the reversal.
In a 40-page opinion issued by the Court, the panel summarized the testimony at trial, and I’m going to attempt to really summarize those facts. Police officers responded to the scene of the accident, where the victims had been assisting Tinder with filling her gas tank. (Tragically, Tinder committed suicide prior to this trial.) Tinder’s vehicle was parked in the roadway with only its left turn signal on. Harper was driving a Ford Explorer, and stated did not see Tinder’s vehicle in the roadway. He swerved left, hitting the victims as they embraced in a hug, and continued driving. Thornell’s fetus was decapitated and found underneath her own badly, mangled body. She was dragged underneath the vehicle for a short length. Soto was also hit. Both were dead by the time police responded to the scene. One experienced officer described the scene as the most gruesome he had ever encountered.
There was conflicting testimony about whether Harper had been intoxicated. Some witnesses, including his roommate, were called by the State and testified that Harper had been drinking, was not sober, and admitted he was not sober. His roommate testified that upon arriving how that night, Harper stated he was in an accident and there “might have been some people there.” Other witnesses testified that when Harper left The Hill (a bar in the Fort) on the night of the accident, he was not intoxicated. Harper admitted he had drank earlier in the day, but did not drink at the Hill, and denied being intoxicated. Harper stated he simply didn’t see the vehicle or the victims. It didn’t help that Harper stopped a short distant from the accident to survey the damage to his vehicle, but then continued to his house, rather than back to the scene. Additionally, Harper admitted to washing and cleaning the vehicle and asking a friend to remove evidence from the interior. These last facts didn’t necessarily prove that he was driving drunk, but tampering with evidence and concealment of a crime is often used as an indicator of guilt.
One witness for the State attempted to re-create the scene of the accident, testifying that she was able to see the disabled vehicle from a distant, and that her braking time allowed her to stop much sooner than Harper had. (You’ll have to read the opinion if you want to learn about all the measurements.)
After a jury convicted him of multiple counts of vehicular homicide, they also made a finding that this was Harper’s 2nd DUI. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The CCA reversed because the trial judge allowed the State to introduce photographs that were completely unnecessary for a finding of guilt or innocence and were extremely graphic in nature. Pictures of the placenta, as well as “Exhibit 80 showing the final resting place of the severed head and left arm of the fetus in what appears to be a small pool of blood,” were shown to jurors. Additional photographs that showed Thornell’s intestines and internal organs expelled from her body were also shown to jurors. The defense argued to the trial judge that these photographs would not assist jurors in a finding of guilt, but would only result in prejudice. In fact, when the photographs were shown, jurors wept and the victim’s family was advised, mid-trial, that they had to control their emotions for a fair trial to occur. Citing Rule 403, the CCA found that none of the photographs were essential to medical testimony, and there was no dispute regarding the victims’ causes of death – most of the photographs were not needed. The Court also concluded that none of these photographs assisted jurors in determining whether Mr. Harper was intoxicated at the time of the accident.
Judge John Williams wrote a brief concurring opinion where he emphasized the graphic nature of the photographs. He stated, “A combination of overzealous prosecuting and weak gatekeeping by the trial court can result in an unfair trial for a defendant.” The concurrence adds that a trial judge must stand strong in their beliefs, especially when they repeatedly express apprehension throughout the trial about possible prejudice to the defendant, as this judge did.
This is a tragic case, but it also illustrates why appellate courts (specifically, unelected appellate courts) are so crucial. Someone must: review the law, verify that trial decisions were made without concern of how the electorate will react, and ensure, without emotion, that constitutional and statutory rights are not violated.
Read the full opinion here: http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/sites/default/files/haprercurtisscott.opn_3.pdf
The concurrence: http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/sites/default/files/harper_concurrence_2.pdf
Here’s the recent news coverage: http://www.knoxnews.com/news/watchful-eye/court-gruesome-photos-unnecessary-new-trial-ordered-for-driver-in-crash-that-killed-3_83523431
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