This is BY FAR my favorite blog post I’ve ever had the opportunity to write, because I get to discuss a case that I’ve poured my heart and soul into over the last three years. Yesterday, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court’s court grant of post-conviction relief to a man that has been in prison nearly twenty years. I’ve thought about this case nearly every day since I was appointed in July 2012, and after being long-forgotten in the justice system, I am so pleased that Curtis has received a little justice.
Let me preface by saying, that the State of Tennessee can file a Rule 11 Application for Permission to Appeal. They can also decline to file a Rule 11. If they file a Rule 11 application, the Tennessee Supreme Court would then have to determine if they want to accept the case. So the fight isn’t over, but he’s a little about the CCA’s recent ruling:
Curtis Bolton’s two year-old son, Cody, died from a traumatic head injury the day before Thanksgiving in 1995. He had sustained a severe blow to the head. Curtis’s girlfriend initially stated that he fell from a high chair while Curtis went to the hospital to treat an injury he received at work earlier than day. She was the child’s caretaker while Curtis worked during the day. She had also given birth to her first child approximately four weeks prior. At trial, the State treated her like the victim, discussing her episiotomy and how her petite stature. After she was charged with murder, the girlfriend changed her story, stating that Curtis had thrown the baby into a wall several times.
This was back in 1995. Curtis was offered a twelve-year sentence, or he was told, he could go to trial and be parole eligible after 25 years. He had never seriously violated the law before this incident; he believed he might not be paroled at 25 years, but he didn’t know he would have to serve 51 years before becoming parole eligible. In fact, the law changed in July 1995, and once he convicted, he learned that he would have to serve a minimum of 51 years.
Curtis and his co-defendant girlfriend both went to trial. His attorney never filed a motion to sever, never consulted with a medical expert, and failed to object to numerous instances of prosecutorial misconduct throughout the trial. Prior to trial, Curtis and his attorney believed that the co-defendant would testify, and that she would say the child fell from a high chair. (This, despite her statements to police that Curtis threw the child into a wall.) The trial began and the State told jurors they would hear from the girlfriend because THEY were going to call her. The girlfriend was the last witness in the State’s case-in-chief. She and Curtis were both on trial for the felony murder. She left the defense table and testified for the State. When she finished, the State announced to the jury that, “he was the principal and she was merely an aider and abettor…” The State made their point, they believed the girlfriend’s testimony. They also relentlessly pegged her as the victim of a controlling, no-good boyfriend who “robbed her of her youth,” by getting her pregnant at age 17. Curtis made them “live at the mercy of the taxpayers.” During the onslaught of attacks from the DA and the co-defendant, Curtis’s attorney never uttered an object - never moved for a severance.
I wish I had time to detail all the additional facts, but if you want more details (and you know you do), you’ll have to just skim or read the opinion. You can find it here.
The CCA held that the trial court was correct: Curtis received ineffective assistance of counsel due to her attorney failing to move for a severance and he was prejudiced by counsel’s inaction. “Once it became known in the present case that the codefendant would testify for the State, any basis for sound trial strategy for proceeding in a joint trial disappeared.” The Court found that once it become clear that the State would be a proponent for the codefendant’s testimony, trial counsel should have realized the inherent prejudice in having the codefendant, on trial for the same offense, testify against Curtis. The State’s endorsement impacted the girlfriend’s “reliability and credibility in a profound manner.” If the case had been severed, the prejudice would not have existed in the same way. The CCA also found that Curtis was incorrectly advised about his sentence, which was deficient performance by trial counsel, but that he wasn’t prejudiced because he wouldn’t have plead guilty either way.
Sooooo kids, that’s the latest ruling. I’d love to write more, but I’ve got boatloads of client letters to get in the mail. Fingers crossed and positive thoughts for the future!
Here's the opinion: http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/sites/default/files/boltoncurtisopn.pdf
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