The five Tennessee Supreme Court justices heard compelling oral arguments from a prosecutor and a defense attorney — one trying to keep a Carter County man on death row and the other trying to get him off death row.
At the center of the arguments is Leonard Edward Smith, now 50, who has been on death row since March 1985 for killing two shopkeepers at different stores in Sullivan County.
The shootings happened May 21, 1984, when Smith, David Hartsook and Angela O’Quinn first went to Malone’s Grocery where Hartsook shot and killed John “Shorty” Pierce.
About 40 minutes later, the trio ended up at Webb’s Grocery. This time it was Smith who went inside with Hartsook. Smith had the gun and shot and killed Novella Webb.
Hartsook was convicted and received two life sentences for the murders. O’Quinn pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting for a 25 year sentence.
Smith was also convicted of both killings, but received one life sentence, for Pierce’s murder, and one death sentence for Webb’s murder.
Since then, Smith’s case has been pulled back and forth to some degree — on appeal the conviction and death sentence for killing Webb was overturned.
In a subsequent trial, Smith was again convicted and sentenced to death.
The sentence was overturned again and Smith was given the death penalty a third time.
Last year, the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the death sentence and remanded the case back to the trial court for a sentencing hearing.
The state Attorney General’s Office appealed that ruling, and that’s how the case got to the Supreme Court.
Part of the defense arguments presented by Kelly Gleason, a post conviction attorney in Nashville, focused on Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown’s involvement in the case and his refusal to step down from the case; a potentially biased juror during the last sentencing hearing and Smith’s reported intellectual disability that was not properly explored by his trial attorneys.
“The issues before this court directly address the integrity of the judicial process,” Gleason said. “At the heart of this is the right to a fair and impartial tribunal.”
Gleason said Smith is borderline retarded and suffered a brain injury at an early age that affected his ability to reason.
On the issue of Brown’s refusal to recuse himself as judge in the case, Gleason argued that the judge could not be impartial in regards to Smith because of his prior experience in prosecuting Smith when Brown worked as an assistant district attorney.
In the CCA’s opinion that overturned the death sentence last year, the panel said Smith’s trial attorneys should have done a better job examining communication between the prosecutor in the murder trial and Brown, who was in the midst of prosecuting Smith in Carter County for robbery.
Brown was appointed to preside over the case after the original judge, Edgar Calhoun, retired.
John Bledsoe, the assistant attorney general who argued the state’s position, told the Supreme Court that there is no basis for the CCA’s ruling.
He said Brown wasn’t required to recuse himself from the case and that a different judge would likely have reached the same decisions as Brown.
On the issue of a potentially biased juror at Smith’s last sentencing, Bledsoe said the man — whose daughter’s fiance was murdered — was properly cleared by the court of any potential bias.
Wednesday’s arguments had a full house audience, consisting mostly of law school students. The Supreme Court held its afternoon session at Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law.
The school, which just started its third class of law students, cancelled all classes so students could attend the special session.
Also in the audience was Webb’s daughter, Katie Mahoney, and her husband, former Johnson City Mayor Dan Mahoney. They sat with now-retired District Attorney General Greeley Wells, who prosecuted Smith.
There is no deadline for the Supreme Court to file an opinion in the case.