State v. Hill

Decision Date03 November 1997
Citation954 S.W.2d 725
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee, Appellant, v. Roger Dale HILL, Sr., Appellee.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Shara Ann Flacy, District Public Defender, William C. Bright, Assistant Public Defender, Pulaski, for Appellee.

John Knox Walkup, Attorney General and Reporter, Michael E. Moore, Kathy Morante, Deputy Attorneys General, Nashville, T. Michael Bottoms, District Attorney General, Richard H. Dunavant, Assistant District Attorney General, Pulaski, for Appellant.


BIRCH, Justice.

We accepted the State's application for review in this cause in order to determine the validity of an indictment which charged aggravated rape. 1 The Court of Criminal Appeals held the indictment void and the subsequent conviction invalid because the language of the indictment failed to allege a culpable mental state. 2

This issue arises because the Sentencing Reform Act of 1989 provides that a culpable mental state is required to establish an offense unless the definition of the offense "plainly dispenses with a mental element." Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-11-301(b)(1991). Further, when a statute omits reference to a specific mens rea, but does not plainly dispense with a mens rea requirement, then proof of "intent," "knowledge," or "recklessness" will suffice to establish a culpable mental state. Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-11-301(c). The statute defining aggravated rape does not expressly require a culpable mental state, neither does it plainly state that no such mental state is required. Thus, proof of intent, knowledge or recklessness is required to sustain a conviction for that offense.

Since a plain reading of Tenn.Code Ann. §§ 39-11-301(b) and (c) leads us to conclude that the Legislature intended that a culpable mens rea be an element of the offense of aggravated rape, the question here is whether failure to allege such mens rea in an indictment charging that offense constitutes a fatal defect rendering the indictment void. We hold that for offenses which neither expressly require nor plainly dispense with the requirement for a culpable mental state, an indictment which fails to allege such mental state will be sufficient to support prosecution and conviction for that offense so long as

(1) the language of the indictment is sufficient to meet the constitutional requirements of notice to the accused of the charge against which the accused must defend, adequate basis for entry of a proper

judgment, and protection from double jeopardy;

(2) the form of the indictment meets the requirements of Tenn.Code Ann. § 40-13-202; and

(3) the mental state can be logically inferred from the conduct alleged.


On or about June 22, 1991, the victim, M.H., 3 and her older sister were spending the night with their paternal grandmother. M.H. was about eight years old. The victim's father, defendant Roger Dale Hill, also spent the night at the house. M.H., her sister, and Hill went to sleep on the floor while her grandmother slept on a couch nearby. According to M.H., after her sister and grandmother went to sleep, Hill pulled up her nightgown, pulled her panties over, and put "[h]is finger in my private," and then "got on top of me and ... started putting his private part into mine." Hill then began to move "[u]p and down." When M.H. told Hill to stop, he did.

A few days later, M.H. related the night's events to her mother. Subsequently, Hill was arrested and charged with aggravated rape. The jury convicted Hill of aggravated sexual battery. The trial court sentenced him to a term of twelve years and imposed a fine in the amount of $25,000. At the hearing on motion for new trial, Hill contended, for the very first time, that the indictment was defective because it failed to specify a culpable mental state for the crime charged. The trial court rejected this contention and approved the verdict. On appeal, the intermediate appellate court ruled that the indictment was indeed void for failure to allege mens rea, and the trial court was therefore without jurisdiction.


Because the issues before us are questions of law, our review is de novo. State v. Davis, 940 S.W.2d 558, 561 (Tenn.1997).

The State contends that the indictment is valid because an indictment need not specify the culpable mental state when the language therein is otherwise sufficient to inform the accused of the charge.

The indictment in question contains six counts, each in the following language:

[the defendant] did unlawfully sexually penetrate [the victim] a person less than thirteen (13) years of age, in violation of Tennessee Code Annotated 39-13-502, all of which is against the peace and dignity of the State of Tennessee.

As for constitutional requirements, the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution guarantee to the accused the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation. Generally stated, an indictment is valid if it provides sufficient information (1) to enable the accused to know the accusation to which answer is required, (2) to furnish the court adequate basis for the entry of a proper judgment, and (3) to protect the accused from double jeopardy. State v. Byrd, 820 S.W.2d 739, 741 (Tenn.1991); VanArsdall v. State, 919 S.W.2d 626, 630 (Tenn.Crim.App.1995); State v. Smith, 612 S.W.2d 493, 497 (Tenn.Crim.App.1980).

We recognize, however, that an indictment need not conform to traditionally strict pleading requirements. Rather, as the Court noted in State v. Pearce,

the strictness required in indictments had grown to be a blemish and inconvenience in the law and the administration thereof. That more offenders escaped by the over-easy ear given to exceptions to indictments, than by the manifestation of their innocence; and that the grossest crimes had gone unpunished by reason of these unseemly niceties.... [W]hile tenderness ought always to prevail in criminal cases, yet, that it does not require such a construction of words as would tend to render the law nugatory and ineffectual, nor does it require of us to give into such nice and strained critical objections as are contrary to its true meaning and spirit....[I]n criminal cases, where the public security is so deeply interested in the prompt execution of justice, it seems the minor consideration should give way to the greater, and technical objections be overlooked, rather than the ends of society be defeated.

7 Tenn. (Peck) 66, 67 (1823). Over the years, this Court has made reference to "the growing inclination of this court to escape from the embarrassment of technicalities that are empty and without reason, and tend to defeat law and right." State v. Cornellison, 166 Tenn. 106, 59 S.W.2d 514, 515 (Tenn.1933). Indeed, the purpose for the traditionally strict pleading requirement was the existence of common law offenses whose elements were not easily ascertained by reference to a statute. Such common law offenses no longer exist. See Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-11-102(a) (1991). Thus, we now approach "attacks upon indictments, especially of this kind, from the broad and enlightened standpoint of common sense and right reason rather than from the narrow standpoint of petty preciosity, pettifogging, technicality or hair splitting fault finding." United States v. Purvis, 580 F.2d 853, 857 (5th Cir.1978)(citing Parsons v. United States, 189 F.2d 252, 253 (5th Cir.1951)).

The form of an indictment is subject to statutory prescription also. Tennessee Code Annotated § 40-13-202 (1990) provides that an indictment must:

state the facts constituting the offense in ordinary and concise language, without prolixity or repetition, in such a manner as to enable a person of common understanding to know what is intended, and with that degree of certainty which will enable the court, on conviction, to pronounce the proper judgment....

This statute, procedural in nature, was originally enacted in 1858, one hundred and thirty-one years prior to the enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1989, which expressly abolished common law offenses and statutorily specified the conduct necessary to support a criminal prosecution in Tennessee. See Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-11-102(1991) and the Sentencing Commission Comments thereto.

When the General Assembly enacted the Sentencing Reform Act of 1989, it included significant references to the requirement for a culpable mental state. One such reference is found in Tenn.Code Ann. § 39-11-301 (1991):

(a)(1) A person commits an offense who acts intentionally,...

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