Attorneys for a man convicted of two 1984 murders in Sullivan County will present oral arguments today to the Tennessee Supreme Court in an attempt to preserve a lower court’s ruling that he deserves a new sentencing hearing.
Likewise, the Tennessee attorney general’s office will ask the five justices to overturn that September Court of Criminal Appeals decision that voided Leonard Edward Smith’s death sentence in one of the murders.
Smith, now 50, remains on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. He’s been there since being convicted of killing John “Shorty” Pierce during a robbery at Malone’s Store on U.S. Highway 19E and Novella Webb during a robbery at Webb’s Grocery on Hickory Tree Road.
Both stores were just a short distance apart in Sullivan County. Webb’s daughter, Katie Mahoney, is married to former Johnson City Mayor Dan Mahoney, who owns an outdoor sporting goods store in Johnson City.
Smith’s case has been through multiple appeals since his 1985 conviction, some wins for him and some losses.
His conviction and life sentence in Pierce’s death has always been affirmed on appeal, but in the Webb killing, Smith has had two trials and four sentencing hearings. Each time a jury sentenced him to death.
His most recent appeal won him a fifth sentencing hearing after the CCA determined his trial attorneys should have done a better job examining communication between the prosecutor in the murder trial and a prosecutor in another case against Smith.
The prosecutors talked about their respective cases against Smith and the possibility of using one of those convictions to enhance the punishment of the other.
That second prosecutor, Lynn Brown, is now the trial court judge presiding over Smith’s case.
Brown was appointed to the case after the original judge, Edgar Calhoun, retired.
The CCA said Smith’s attorneys should have presented more evidence when they tried to get Brown to recuse himself — something he refused to do. And while there was nothing wrong with the two prosecutors’ communications, Smith’s attorneys should have looked at them closer, the court said.
The Criminal Court of Appeals also noted that because the original attorneys, Larry Weddington and Robert Boatwright, had so little experience with not only death penalty cases but first-degree murder cases as well, they “breached the acceptable standards for capital representation,” and based its ruling on the recusal issue.
The CCA said while Weddington and Boatwright are to be “commended for their perseverance ... the proven constitutional deficiency cannot be overlooked.”
Weddington “just happened to be in the courtroom,” when Smith was charged and was appointed to the case. He had tried one death penalty case, which resulted in the defendant being sentenced to death. Boatwright joined the case after Smith was indicted and had no capital case experience and primarily was a civil attorney.
The CCA ruling last year also disqualified Brown from presiding as the trial judge in the case.
The oral arguments to the Supreme Court are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. in Knoxville.