by Lee Davis
Justice Holder writing for the Court in State of Tennessee v. Charles E. Lowe-Kelley states that a motion for new trial may be amended by replacement counsel and the trial court retains jurisdiction for the motion despite the original motion's failure to cite any substantive grounds.
Charles Lowe-Kelley was sentenced following his conviction on two counts of first degree murder and nine counts of attempted first degree murder. Eighteen days later, his attorney filed a motion requesting a new trial and withdrew as counsel. The motion contained no specific grounds for relief. The trial court appointed replacement counsel.
Several months later, replacement counsel amended the motion for new trial to allege specific grounds for relief. The trial court denied the amended motion for new trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the original motion for new trial was a nullity because it contained no grounds for relief and that the trial court therefore did not have jurisdiction to permit the amendment of the motion for new trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals therefore considered the defendant’s specific grounds for relief as waived.
The Tennessee Supreme Court holds that the original motion for new trial met the requirements of Rule 33 despite its failure to allege specific grounds for relief and that the trial court retained jurisdiction to permit the amendment of the motion.
In making this decision the court addresses a practical consideration that would have become a problem if left alone. When a trial lawyer is allowed to withdraw at the trial court level, it is often in the aftermath of a trial and before the lawyer or the defendant may be fully aware of any substantive grounds for seeking a new trial. The trial lawyer has performed his duty and for a host of reasons may want off the case. Trial judges routinely allow this. The lawyer should file the motion for new trial at the conclusion of representation with sufficient grounds alleged. In cases like this one, where the lawyer has not, it makes sense to allow new counsel the opportunity to amend the motion after further consideration. While the court of appeals may have been correct in its observation that a trial court no longer retains jurisdiction of a case when the final pleading is--in its words--a nullity, the result would cut off any defendant from relief by motion for a new trial. Perhaps not many people will have claims that bear consideration, but the Supreme Court is right to understand that those few who do should be able to press those claims beginning in the trial court.
The case is remanded to the Court of Criminal Appeals to consider the defendant’s appeal of the denial of his amended motion for new trial.