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VOL. 130 | NO. 95 | Friday, May 15, 2015

Tennessee Appeals Court Reverses Another Shelby County Conviction

By Bill Dries

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As two high profile Memphis murder cases moved toward retrial this week, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed another murder conviction in Shelby County Criminal Court earlier this month.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has reversed another murder conviction from Shelby County Criminal Court, the appellate court’s seventh reversal of a local criminal conviction since August.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The reversal of Christopher Swift’s first-degree murder conviction is the seventh conviction in Shelby County Criminal Court sent back for retrial by a state appellate court since August. It is the fifth murder conviction reversed on appeal in Shelby County since August.

Swift was tried together with codefendant Marquavious Houston in 2012 for the 2011 murder of Marco Blockmon and the attempted murder of Demarus Smith. The same jury convicted both men and both were sentenced to life plus 26 years on the two convictions.

The appeals court ruled May 5 that Swift and Houston should have had separate trials and that Criminal Court Judge James Beasley Jr. erred when prosecutors were allowed to show the jury an assault rifle that was not used in the crimes.

The 29-page opinion, by Judge Norma McGee Ogle, outlines a complex case and legal issues in which a dissenting opinion was filed by Judge Timothy L. Easter.

While Swift’s conviction was reversed and a new trial was ordered, Houston’s conviction and sentence were affirmed as the same court denied his appeal.

Attorneys for each defendant claimed that their trials should have been separate because each side was pursuing very different trial strategies that at times implicated the other defendant.

But they were indicted jointly by a grand jury.

In his instructions to the jury, Beasley told the jury it was trying two cases at once.

“They are both entitled to have their own cases heard,” he said in a transcript excerpt included in the appeals court ruling. “They are having their own cases tried.”

After telling the jury it couldn’t use proof presented about one defendant in judging the other, Beasley added: “So (you’ve) got to kind of do a mental gymnastics, if you will.”

“Generally, we presume that a jury has followed the trial court’s instructions,” Ogle wrote. “However, in this case, we believe the prejudice to Swift and the mental gymnastics required by the jury were too great to be overcome by the instructions.”

Easter dissented on that point, saying Beasley “gave clear and correct instructions on how the jury was to consider the evidence as to each defendant.”

The appeals court ruled just before two other murders cases in which the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed convictions were on their way to retrials.

A jury was selected Wednesday, May 13, in the retrial of Henry Lee Jones, who is accused of the 2003 murders of Clarence and Lillian James at their Bartlett home.

Jones, who again faces the death penalty, is representing himself in the retrial. Judge Mark Ward has appointed what is called “elbow counsel” to advise Jones during the trial.

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed Jones’ conviction of both murders. It ruled that prosecutors shouldn’t have been allowed by Judge John Colton in the first trial to bring up another murder conviction for Jones.

Meanwhile, Noura Jackson was back in another division of Criminal Court Wednesday for what she hoped would be a bond hearing, seeking her release from prison pending her second trial on the charge that she murdered her mother, Jennifer Jackson, in 2005.

The defense and prosecution could not agree Wednesday on who special prosecutor Mike Dunavant can use in preparing the case. Dunavant was appointed special prosecutor after Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich recused her office from trying the case a second time.

Judge Chris Craft set a May 20 court date for both sides to see what, if any, progress they have made on that issue and from there possibly conduct a bond hearing.

The Tennessee Supreme Court threw out Jackson’s conviction and ordered a new trial because of evidence the defense might have used that wasn’t turned over by the prosecution.

The court also cited closing statements by then-Assistant District Attorney Weirich urging Jackson to tell the court her side of the story. The court ruled that directly addressing Jackson in that manner was improper and called attention to Jackson’s decision not to testify in her own defense.

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