On May 24, the Tennessee Supreme Court entered a Rule10 Order addressing the question of whether Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood erred by granting the defendants’ motions for new trials in the first-degree murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom.
Judge Richard Baumgartner presided over the defendants’ trials but retired after pleading guilty to official misconduct and before ruling on the motions for new trials. In granting the motions, successor Judge Blackwood found that 1) Judge Baumgartner’s misconduct amounted to structural error and that 2) credibility issues concerning Judge Baumgartner prevented Judge Blackwood from acting as a thirteenth juror.
As a preliminary matter, Tenn. R. App. P. 10 sets out a narrow avenue for interlocutory review called an extraordinary appeal. Such appeal may be sought “(1) if the lower court has so far departed from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings as to require immediate review, or (2) if necessary for complete determination of the action on appeal.” The procedure for applying for a Rule 9 interlocutory appeal and a Rule 10 extraordinary appeal is basically the same except that Rule 10 requires only the permission of the appellate court. On review, Rule 36 permits the appellate court to grant whatever relief is appropriate.
In discussing the issue of structural error, the Court emphasized that Judge Baumgartner’s misconduct outside the courtroom was a clear violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct and that such behavior undermines public confidence in the judiciary. Nonetheless, the defendants had not met their burden of demonstrating that his misconduct “fundamentally compromise[d] the trials” as required for a finding of structural error. Indeed, the Court quoted Judge Blackwood during earlier hearings in which he stated that nothing in the trial transcripts indicated that Judge Baumgartner was impaired.
The Court further opined that under Tenn. R. Crim. P. 25(b)(2), which addresses the authority of a successor judge, Judge Blackwood rightly considered whether he could perform thirteenth-juror review. The Court determined, however, that he applied an incorrect legal standard by focusing on Judge Baumgartner’s credibility rather than the credibility of the witnesses at trial. Under the correct standard, which is set out in State v. Brown, 53 S.W.3d 264, 275 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2000), Judge Blackwood may perform thirteenth-juror review so long as witness credibility is not an “overriding issue.”
Ultimately, the Court vacated Judge Blackwood’s finding of structural error and instructed him to apply the correct legal standard when determining on remand whether he can perform thirteenth-juror review. In sum, the door for new trials is still open.