The Tennessee Supreme Court on Monday granted a convicted double killer a new sentencing hearing in one case as well as a hearing to determine his intellectual level at the time of the murders.
Leonard Smith, now 50, was convicted in 1985 for the shooting deaths of two Sullivan County store owners during two separate robberies the previous year.
Smith was sentenced to life in prison for the death of John “Shorty” Pierce during a robbery at Malone’s Store on Highway 19E and he was sentenced to death for killing Novella Webb during a robbery at Webb’s Grocery on Hickory Tree Road.
The robberies were committed a short time apart by Smith and his friend David Hartsook.
Hartsook was also convicted of both murders, but received life sentences for each.
A third person, Angela O’Quinn, Smith’s girlfriend at the time, received 25 years in prison after she pleaded no contest to aiding and abetting.
Since his conviction, Smith’s case in the Webb murder has been overturned two other times and sent back to the trial court for retrial and resentencing.
The Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday marks the third time Smith has been awarded a new sentencing hearing in the Webb murder.
Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus said he was disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision.
His next move is to determine if the state will again seek the death penalty against Smith.
“It’s a 44-page opinion, so I’ll need to review that,” and consult with Webb’s family and his former boss, Greeley Wells, who is now retired, Staubus said. “The issue is whether we will seek the death penalty or not,” Staubus said.
In addition to remanding Smith’s case for resentencing, the Supreme Court also decided that the questions surrounding Smith’s intellect should also be explored further.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court determined that the Court of Criminal Appeals — which had ruled Smith failed to previously provide adequate evidence — applied an incorrect legal standard to determine Smith’s IQ.
His IQ level bears on the case because state law prohibits an intellectually disabled person from being executed for a criminal conviction.
Smith’s post-conviction appeal also addressed the Pierce conviction, but the Supreme Court upheld the CCA’s ruling that Smith waited too long to challenge it. The court also upheld the Webb conviction and said Smith failed to show he was prejudiced by his trial attorney’s inadequate questioning of potential jurors.
The court further stated that Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown, who was appointed to the case after Judge Edgar Calhoun retired, cannot proceed over the case any longer. Not long after getting the case, Brown refused to recuse himself after Smith’s attorneys asked based on the judge’s prior connection to the case.
When Brown was a prosecutor in Carter County before taking the bench, he prosecuted Smith on simple robbery and DUI prior to the murder convictions in Sullivan County. Brown argued for consecutive sentences to the murder sentences, but was denied at Smith’s sentencing hearing.
Smith received 15 years on that robbery conviction, but it was ordered to run concurrent to the murder sentences.
In 1989, Smith was back in Carter County for a contraband charge. By that time, Brown was the sitting judge and refused to recuse himself from Smith’s new case.
Smith was found guilty of the contraband charge and Brown imposed the maximum sentence and ordered the 10 years be served consecutively to all other sentences.
“Recusal is required when a judge has previously served as prosecutor of a defendant in the same case,” the Supreme Court panel wrote in the Monday opinion. It is apparent the roles of prosecutor Brown and Judge Brown were too closely connected.
There is not a court hearing scheduled yet, but Staubus said he expects the case will return to Hamblen County soon.
Smith’s cases were tried in Hamblen County after his trial attorneys asked for, and were granted, a change of venue.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Hartsook was deceased. He remains incarcerated at the Morgan County Correctional Complex, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction website.