State v. Moon, M2019-01865-SC-R11-CD

CourtSupreme Court of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtROGER A. PAGE, CHIEF JUSTICE
PartiesSTATE OF TENNESSEE v. WILLIAM EUGENE MOON
Decision Date20 April 2022
Docket NumberM2019-01865-SC-R11-CD

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.

WILLIAM EUGENE MOON

No. M2019-01865-SC-R11-CD

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Nashville

April 20, 2022


Session October 6, 2021 [1]

Appeal by Permission from the Court of Criminal Appeals Circuit Court for Coffee County No. 44, 905F L. Craig Johnson, Judge

William Eugene Moon ("Defendant") was convicted of attempted second degree murder and unlawful employment of a firearm during the commission of or attempt to commit a dangerous felony. Defendant appealed his conviction and asserted, among other things, that he had been denied the right to a speedy trial and that the trial court erred by allowing improper impeachment of a defense witness. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the judgments of the trial court, holding that Defendant was not denied a speedy trial and, although the trial court erred in allowing the prosecution to improperly impeach a defense witness, the error was harmless. This Court granted Defendant's application for permission to appeal to consider whether the Court of Criminal Appeals applied the proper standard of review to Defendant's claim that he was denied a speedy trial, to address the merits of Defendant's speedy trial claim, and to determine whether the trial court committed reversible error in allowing improper impeachment of a defense witness. We hold that the standard of review for an alleged speedy trial violation is de novo with deference to the trial court's findings of fact unless the evidence preponderates otherwise. When reviewed under this standard, we determine that the Court of Criminal Appeals properly held that the Defendant was not denied a speedy trial. Further, we agree with the intermediate court that the trial court erred in allowing improper impeachment of a defense witness. However, we hold that this error was not harmless and is reversible error. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals and vacate the judgments of the trial court. The case is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals Reversed; Judgments of the Trial Court Vacated; Case Remanded to Trial Court

1

Paul Andrew Justice, III, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellant, William Eugene Moon.

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Sophia S. Lee, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Benjamin A. Ball, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Samantha L. Simpson, Assistant Attorney General; Craig Northcott, District Attorney General; and Jason Ponder, Assistant District Attorney, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Roger A. Page, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Sharon G. Lee, Jeffrey S. Bivins, and Holly Kirby, JJ., joined.

OPINION

ROGER A. PAGE, CHIEF JUSTICE

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On December 17, 2017, Corporal Michael Wilder[2] was on patrol near apartments he previously searched for drug trafficking when he saw a black sports utility vehicle with spray-painted windows. Corporal Wilder drove by the vehicle and observed four individuals he believed to be avoiding him. He parked in a side alley and watched the vehicle, noticing the occupants entering and exiting the vehicle to walk to a trailer park on the other side of the road. Corporal Wilder considered this to be strange behavior and drove through the trailer park "to figure out what [was] going on." At the trailer park, Corporal Wilder observed several people outside, including one man who lowered his head and ran up to a trailer when he saw Corporal Wilder approaching.

Corporal Wilder spoke with Larry Woods, an employee of the trailer park, [3] outside of Mr. Woods' trailer. Corporal Wilder asked Mr. Woods who was inside the trailer, and Mr. Woods told Corporal Wilder it was Defendant. Corporal Wilder asked Mr. Woods to retrieve Defendant from the trailer, and Mr. Woods complied. Defendant emerged from the trailer, standing atop a set of steps. Corporal Wilder believed Defendant appeared "fidgety" and "nervous" and that Defendant's breathing "start[ed] to pick up." To Corporal Wilder, these were signs of "evasion" or "possible violence." Corporal Wilder noticed a plastic bag inside Defendant's mouth that he believed contained methamphetamine. He instructed Defendant to spit out the plastic bag, and a tussle ensued between Corporal Wilder and Defendant. Precisely what happened during that conflict is at the core of this case.

2

According to Corporal Wilder, Defendant began cursing and actively fighting against him. Corporal Wilder testified that, during the scuffle, Defendant pulled a gun and held it against Corporal Wilder's abdomen. Corporal Wilder tried to get the gun away from Defendant. He believed Defendant was attempting to use deadly force against him. According to Corporal Wilder, as a "last resort" he pushed Defendant back and shot at him.

Defendant's version of events differs substantially. While he admitted he had a gun in the waistband of his pants that day, Defendant insisted he did not fight against Corporal Wilder and he never took the gun out. Rather, Defendant claimed that the gun fell out of his pants and underneath him after Corporal Wilder shot him.

It is undisputed that Corporal Wilder shot Defendant five times. Defendant was transported to a hospital in Alabama for medical treatment, and his arrest warrant was issued by the General Sessions Court on December 21, 2017, while he was still hospitalized. The record indicates that Defendant was served with the warrant for his arrest and incarcerated in Tennessee on January 24, 2018.

On April 10, 2018, Defendant was indicted for attempted first-degree murder, resisting arrest, aggravated assault, and two counts of unlawful employment of a firearm during the commission of or attempt to commit a dangerous felony. He was arraigned in circuit court on April 17, 2018. At a court appearance on May 9, 2018, he requested a trial date. On May 23, 2018, the trial court set the trial for November 28, 2018. As the trial date approached, the State moved for a continuance due to a scheduling conflict with a multi-day rape trial that had been pending for three years. Defendant opposed the motion, but the trial court reset his case for February 1, 2019. On January 16, 2019, Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him for violation of his right to a speedy trial.[4] The trial court issued a written order denying Defendant's motion to dismiss on February 7, 2019. Thereafter, the trial court sua sponte moved the trial to February 11, 2019, to allow Defendant's trial to proceed over three consecutive weekdays.

Before the trial began, the State moved to dismiss three counts of the indictment: Count 2 (resisting arrest), Count 3 (aggravated assault), and Count 4 (one count of unlawful employment of a firearm during the commission of or attempt to commit a dangerous felony). Thus, the trial proceeded against Defendant on Count 1 (attempted first-degree murder), and Count 5 (unlawful employment of a firearm during the commission of or attempt to commit a dangerous felony). The trial began on February 11, 2019, and concluded on February 14, 2019.

3

In addition to Defendant and Corporal Wilder, the court heard testimony from several other law enforcement officers and eyewitnesses.[5] Most notably, and relevant to the issues presented on appeal before this Court, the State called as a witness Detective Karl Pyrdom. Detective Pyrdom testified that he arrived at the scene after Officer Wilder called for backup. He arrived in time to see a "scuffle," and ran toward the trailer. He heard Corporal Wilder shouting instructions but did not hear him tell Defendant to drop a weapon. He stated that he could not see either party's hands and that he could not see Defendant holding a weapon. After gunshots were fired, Detective Pyrdom was instructed by Officer Wilder to "get that gun," and Detective Pyrdom testified that he picked up a weapon that he saw on the ground at the foot of the steps to the trailer.

The defense, in turn, called eyewitness Larry Woods. Mr. Woods described witnessing the altercation from close range. He emphasized that he did not see Defendant holding a gun and that, after Corporal Wilder shot Defendant, he did not initially see a gun on the ground. He later saw Detective Pyrdom kick a gun out from under Defendant, who was lying on the ground. Mr. Woods son, Donald, was also present at the scene and testified that he never saw a gun in Defendant's hand. In addition, J.J., [6] a friend of Defendant's who was fourteen years old at the time of the incident, testified that he saw Defendant place a gun in his pants prior to the altercation with Corporal Wilder. He stated that he observed the altercation and that there was not a gun in Defendant's hands.

The jury convicted Defendant of the lesser-included offense of attempted second-degree murder and also convicted him of unlawful employment of a firearm during the commission of or attempt to commit a dangerous felony. The trial court sentenced Defendant to consecutive sentences of ten years for the attempted second-degree murder conviction and six years for the employment of a firearm conviction, for a total effective sentence of sixteen years imprisonment.

The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the judgments of the trial court. See State v. Moon, No. M2019-01865-CCA-R3-CD, 2021 WL 531308, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 12, 2021), perm. app. granted, (Tenn. May 13, 2021). Relevant to this appeal, the intermediate appellate court concluded that Defendant's right to a speedy trial had not been violated. Id. at *20. The court determined that the delay was not unreasonable and that Defendant failed to establish he had been prejudiced by the delay. Id. at *19-*20. The intermediate court also declined relief to...

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