Tennessee Supreme Court Rejects Request For New Trial 20 Years After Rape Conviction

Thursday, July 19, 2018

In an appeal from Shelby County Criminal Court, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s request for a new trial more than 20 years after his original conviction for aggravated rape.

In 1998, a Shelby County jury convicted Tommy Nunley of the aggravated rape of his thirteen-year-old cousin. In the years following the conviction, Mr. Nunley appealed the case and also filed numerous post-conviction petitions, all arguing that his conviction should be overturned. His efforts were unsuccessful.

In 2016, Mr. Nunley filed a pleading asking for a new trial. The pleading Mr. Nunley filed is called a “coram nobis” petition; the phrase “coram nobis” means “our court” in Latin. Under Tennessee law, a prisoner may file a coram nobis petition with the trial court if he has newly discovered evidence that would show that he is not guilty of the offense for which he was convicted, provided he is not at fault for not bringing the evidence to the attention of the trial court sooner.

In Mr. Nunley’s case, in response to one of his post-conviction petitions, the State produced a memo written by one of the prosecutors prior to Mr. Nunley’s trial. The memo said that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lab would not do certain DNA tests on the rape victim’s clothing. Mr. Nunley argued that, under the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brady v. Maryland, the prosecutor’s memo was exculpatory evidence —evidence tending to show lack of guilt—that prosecutors were constitutionally required to show him before his trial. Mr. Nunley claimed that prosecutors illegally withheld the memo from his attorney. Mr. Nunley argued that, had the jury seen this “newly discovered” evidence, he would not have been convicted of raping his cousin. For this reason, Mr. Nunley asked the trial court to grant him a new trial.

Without asking the State for a response to the coram nobis petition and without an evidentiary hearing, the trial court dismissed the petition, partly because it was filed long after the one-year statute of limitations expired. Tennessee law allows for “tolling” or suspending of the statute of limitations in some circumstances, but the trial court held that Mr. Nunley had not shown that he was entitled to it.

The Court of Criminal Appeals would not consider the statute of limitations because the State had not argued it to the trial court. However, it affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Mr. Nunley’s petition because the prosecutor’s memo was not “newly discovered evidence” that justified a new trial.

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court initially clarified that a coram nobis petition is not the right way for a prisoner to assert that his constitutional rights were violated under Brady v. Maryland. In Brady, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is a violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights for the State to withhold exculpatory evidence, sometimes called “Brady evidence” for short. The Court explained that post-conviction proceedings were the right way for a prisoner to raise a constitutional violation under Brady, and Mr. Nunley had already filed multiple post-conviction pleadings.

As for Mr. Nunley’s coram nobis petition, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that trial courts may summarily dismiss coram nobis petitions that do not show sufficient facts on their face, without discovery or an evidentiary hearing. Specifically, the Court held that timeliness under the statute of limitations is an “essential element” of a coram nobis claim that must be shown on the face of the petition. If a prisoner seeks “tolling” of the statute of limitations, the facts supporting the tolling request must likewise appear on the face of the petition. The Court overturned prior cases holding that timeliness of a coram nobis petition is an “affirmative defense” that is waived unless it is raised by the State in the trial court.

Applying this standard, the Court rejected Mr. Nunley’s arguments, affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss his coram nobis petition, and declined to grant him a new trial.
To read the unanimous opinion in Tommy Nunley v. State of Tennessee, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.


Enrollment Period Announced For Monthly Payment Program For Bradley County Property Taxes

Bradley County Trustee Mike Smith has announced the enrollment periods for the 12-month payment program for property taxes. The program for the 2019 property taxes will have the first payment due on March 15, 2019. Enrollment for the monthly payment program is currently open through Dec 7. An additional enrollment period will be from Jan. 3, 2019, through Feb. 8, 2019. ... (click for more)

Tennessee September Revenues Exceeded Budgeted Estimates

Tennessee revenues exceeded budgeted estimates for September. Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin Thursday reported that overall September revenues were $1.4 billion, which is $63.4 million more than September of last year and $53.3 million more than the budgeted estimate. The growth rate for September was 4.66 percent. "September sales tax receipts continue ... (click for more)

County Schools To Push Forward With Equity Effort; Magnet Schools To Get More Diversity With Lottery Change

The county schools will push forward with an equity effort that appeared to have been paused after board members Rhonda Thurman and Joe Smith in May said  they rejected the idea that county schools need to “racially and economically integrate.” An equity task force did not meet for several months and the schools did not move forward on hiring an outside consultant to help ... (click for more)

Chattanooga Red Wolves SC To Build Soccer-Specific Stadium For 2020 Season

Chattanooga Red Wolves Soccer Club is building a state-of-the-art, soccer-specific facility, where the team will host home games beginning in 2020. For its inaugural season, the club will play at Chattanooga Christian School’s David Stanton Field in 2019.   David Stanton Field seats 3,500, and the club plans to install additional temporary seating allowing up to approximately ... (click for more)

Drink Up, Chattanooga

I attended the meeting to discuss the placement of the sewage treatment plant at the Cambridge Center in Ooltewah today. My problem with the meeting (aka) dog and pony show, is that the meeting started out with the agenda of the Ooltewah Community Council.  After living in this area for 45+ years I have never heard of this group.  I would like for someone to answer ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Dear Faux Pelini

It has been my experience that of all the tribes and herds of different people on earth, sports writers are among the funniest people of all. Oh, there isn’t anything real sexy about Villanova beating Georgetown or a baseball player hitting for the cycle. Now, if a player hits a single, double, triple and homer in that order, that’s “a natural cycle,” and that is kind of fun to ... (click for more)