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Successor Judge as Thirteenth Juror

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Case: State of Tennessee v. Justin Ellis

Facts: Defendant was convicted in a trial presided over by Judge Baumgartner, who later resigned due to misconduct. A successor judge considered and denied Defendant’s motion for a new trial, concluding that he was able to fulfill his role as “thirteenth juror” despite not personally viewing witness testimony because witness credibility was not an “overriding issue” in the case.

Appellate Decision: A divided intermediate court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial, holding that witness credibility was an “overriding issue” such that the judge could not act as thirteenth juror, pursuant to State v. Biggs, 218 S.W.3d 643 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2006). The dissent concluded the successor judge had not abused his discretion in denying the motion because there did not appear to be any disputes or contradiction over the facts given during testimony.

Issue: When can a successor judge act as thirteenth juror?

Review Granted: August 13, 2013.

Prediction: Ben believes that a prediction in this case is impossible because it appears to be a very fact-driven issue, but it will be interesting to see whether the Supreme Court creates a broad or narrow rule for when successor judges are able to act as a thirteenth juror. David thinks the Supreme will reverse and adopt the intermediate court’s dissenting opinion.