Christopher V. Sockwell, Judge

Biography

Reports of Cases Reviewed by Appellate Courts – Beginning Jan. 1, 2022

Text is the appellate court’s summary of the opinion.

Scroll down for important information.

 

State of Tennessee v. Rowden, No. M2023-00262-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App.  Feb. 9, 2024).  A Lawrence County jury convicted the Defendant, Charles Timothy Rowden, of first degree felony murder, second degree murder, especially aggravated robbery, and aggravated arson. The trial court merged the two murder convictions and imposed an effective sentence of life without the possibility of parole. On appeal, the Defendant asserts that: (1) the trial court erred when it did not instruct the jury that the Defendant’s girlfriend was an accomplice as a matter of law; (2) the evidence is insufficient to support his convictions; and (3) his attorney was ineffective. After review, we affirm the trial court’s judgments and remand for entry of an additional judgment form.

 

Price v. State of Tennessee, No. M2022-01556-CCA-R3-PC (Tenn. Crim. App. Dec. 8, 2023) (memorandum opinion).  The Appellant, Hartwell D. Price, appeals the trial court’s summary dismissal of his petition for habeas corpus relief. The State has filed a motion asking this Court to affirm pursuant to Court of Criminal Appeals Rule 20. Said motion is hereby granted.

 

Garner v. Perry, Warden, No. M2022-01733-CCA-R3-HC  (Tenn. Crim. App. July 24, 2023).  Petitioner, Robert Wayne Garner, appeals from the Wayne County Circuit Court’s summary denial of his second petition for habeas corpus relief, in which he challenged the sufficiency of the felony murder indictment under which he was convicted. Petitioner argues on appeal that the habeas corpus court erred in failing to make findings of fact and conclusions of law in denying relief. After review, we affirm the judgment of the habeas corpus court.

 

Edwards v. State of Tennessee, No. M2022-01416-CCA-R3-PC (Tenn. Crim. App. July 20, 2023).  Petitioner, Milburn L. Edwards, appeals from the Wayne County Circuit Court’s order summarily dismissing his ninth petition for writ of habeas corpus. On appeal, Petitioner argues the habeas corpus court’s order failed to include adequate findings of fact and conclusions of law, the State’s answer to the habeas corpus petition was insufficient, and the Warden of Petitioner’s penitentiary was not served with process. After review, we affirm the judgment of the habeas corpus court.

 

State of Tennessee v. Sheets, No. M2022-00538-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App.  Apr. 12, 2023).  The Defendant, Gavin Tyler Sheets, pled guilty to the offenses of vehicular homicide by recklessness and reckless endangerment. Following a sentencing hearing, the trial court imposed a total effective sentence of six years to serve in the Tennessee Department of Correction. On appeal, the Defendant asserts that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his request for judicial diversion. He also contends that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to order an alternative sentence to incarceration. We respectfully disagree and affirm the judgments of the trial court.

 

Cannistra v. Brown, No. M2021-00833-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 26, 2022). This appeal involves a challenge to a circuit court’s award to a landlord for a deficiency in lease payments.  The landlord and tenant offered conflicting testimony regarding the terms of the parties’ agreement.  The circuit court judge found the landlord’s description of the agreement more convincing than the tenant’s and awarded the landlord a judgment in the amount of $9,800 as well as costs.  On appeal, the tenant insists the circuit court judge erred in his assessment of the conflicting testimony.  We find the trial court’s determination to be supported by the record and therefore affirm the judgment of the trial court.

 

Jones v. Jones, No. M2021-00788-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 23, 2022).  This case involves a custody dispute between a biological father and the maternal grandparents of two children.  The children at issue were placed in the temporary custody of their maternal grandparents while the children’s parents were in the midst of a divorce and were dealing with addiction issues.  Father petitioned the court to regain full custody of the children.  Ultimately, the court named maternal grandparents primary residential parents and provided father with 54 days of parenting time per year. Because the orders granting custody to the maternal grandparents were temporary, the chancery court should have applied the superior parental rights doctrine, rather than a material change in circumstances, when making its custody decision with respect to the father.  Because the chancery court applied an incorrect legal standard when analyzing the case, we reverse the chancery court’s order and remand the case for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

 

Barnett v. State of Tennessee, No. M2021-00554-CCA-R3-PC (Tenn. Crim. App. June 23, 2022).  The petitioner, Anthony E. Barnett, appeals the dismissal of his petition for post-conviction relief as untimely. Because the record establishes that the incarcerated petitioner did not submit his petition to the appropriate prison official for mailing within one year of the final action of the supreme court on his direct appeal, we affirm the ruling of the post-conviction court.

 

Schelfe v. State of Tennessee, No. M2021-00501-CCA-R3-HC (Tenn. Crim. App. May 16, 2022).  In 2013, the Petitioner, Jonathan Schelfe, pleaded guilty to ten counts of rape of a child, eight counts of aggravated sexual battery, four counts of rape, two counts of solicitation of a minor, and one count of sexual exploitation of a minor. The trial court imposed an effective sentence of forty years of incarceration. The Petitioner filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence with regard to four of his convictions, which the trial court denied. This court affirmed the denial. State v. Jonathan Schelfe, No. M2018-01604-CCA-R3-CD, 2019 WL 4071981, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App., at Nashville, Aug. 29, 2019), no perm. app. filed. Thereafter, the Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, alleging a violation of his constitutional rights, and the habeas court entered an order summarily dismissing the petition. We affirm the habeas court’s judgment.

 

Washington v. Tony Parker as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, No. M2021-00583-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 9, 2022). An inmate filed a petition for declaratory judgment against the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Corrections (“TDOC”). The action was filed in Wayne County Chancery Court instead of Davidson County Chancery Court as required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-225(a). The trial court found that venue in Wayne County Chancery Court was not proper and that it was not in the interest of justice to transfer venue to Davidson County because Defendant neither had paid any portion of the filing fee, pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-807, nor had he named the agency, TDOC, as a party to the action as required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-225(a). The trial court, therefore, dismissed the inmate’s petition. We find that the inmate had not failed to comply with the partial filing fee payment because the trial court had not assessed the initial filing fee to be paid. However, the trial court was correct that the inmate had failed to include TDOC as a party to the action as required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-225(a). Upon consideration of the appellee’s argument concerning the timeliness of the inmate’s notice of appeal, we hold that we have subject matter jurisdiction over this appeal. Although we disagree with the trial court’s conclusion regarding the inmate’s compliance with Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-807, we affirm the trial court’s judgment dismissing the inmate’s action because the inmate failed to name TDOC as a party to the action.

 

Timothy A. Baxter v. Grady Perry, No. M2020-01654-CCA-R3-HC (Tenn. Crim. App. March 8, 2022). The Petitioner, Timothy A. Baxter, appeals the summary dismissal of his petition for writ of habeas corpus.  Discerning no error, we affirm the judgment of the habeas corpus court.

 

Danny Ray Lacy v. State of Tennessee, No. M2020-01644-CCA-R3-HC (Tenn. Crim. App. March 7, 2022). The Petitioner, Danny Ray Lacy, appeals the Wayne County Circuit Court’s summary dismissal of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus for his first degree murder conviction, for which he received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  The Petitioner contends that the habeas corpus court erred by summarily dismissing his petition.  We affirm the judgment of the habeas corpus court.

 

State of Tennessee v. Martin Hubert White, No. M2021-00118-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 25, 2022). The Appellant, Martin Hubert White, pled guilty in the Giles County Circuit Court to aggravated assault, a Class C felony, and burglary of an automobile, a Class E felony, and received an effective three-year sentence suspended to time served and supervised probation.  On appeal, the Appellant claims that the trial court erred by denying his request for judicial diversion.  Based upon our de novo review of the record and the parties’ briefs, we affirm the judgments of the trial court.

 

Understanding the Limitations and Use of the Information Found in This Book

Tennessee’s trial judges resolve hundreds of thousands of legal and factual issues in tens of thousands of cases every single year.  No appeal is filed in the vast percentage of those cases, indicating that while the “losing” party may not like a ruling on a particular issue, that party understands there was an appropriate reason for the judge’s decision or, at a minimum, the judge was acting within his or her discretion.

 

Of course, a small number of decisions of trial judges do result in an appeal. Experienced trial lawyers know that the number of cases appealed out of a particular trial judge’s court does not, in and of itself, reveal much about the trial judge. For example, some judges hear more complex cases than others, and those cases are more likely to be appealed. Convictions in child sex abuse cases are frequently appealed, as are many criminal cases resulting in long sentences. There are a large number of parental rights termination cases that find their way to the appellate courts.  Judges who routinely try those types of cases will, other things being equal, see more of their cases reviewed by appellate courts than judges who do not see such cases.

 

Second, certain litigants (and certain lawyers) are more likely to appeal a case than others.  Thus, judges who have those litigants or lawyers regularly appear in their courtrooms will find more cases reviewed by the appellate courts.

 

For these and other reasons, the reader is cautioned not to read too much into the number of cases appealed from a court.  Stated differently, there is no reason to believe that a judge who has ten cases reviewed by an appellate court in a single year is a “worse” judge than one who has one case appealed, or that a judge who has three cases appealed is a “better” judge than one who has nine cases appealed.

 

Next, the number of times a judge’s ruling is reversed by an appellate court is not necessarily indicative of the quality of his or her work. For example, experienced lawyers know that there are “holes in the law,” i.e., cases where there is no law directly on point and the judge is forced to predict what an appellate court would rule on the issue. The fact that a judge decided an open legal issue one way and an appellate court decided it another way does not mean that the trial judge was “wrong” or does not understand the law. It simply means that the trial judge had a different view of what the law should be than the appellate court that decided the issue. A trial judge is not blessed with a crystal ball that can with 100 percent accuracy forecast how an appellate court will rule on an undecided legal issue.

 

In addition, the trial court is sometimes not provided with the same in-depth legal arguments and law that is supplied to the appellate court by the parties, or which is provided by law clerks at the appellate level (many trial courts do not have law clerks). The trial judge may have reached the same conclusion as the appellate court if he or she had been supplied with additional law or argument.

 

Finally, the law changes constantly, and the trial judge may rule on a case based on today’s law, which may evolve between the time of that ruling and the issuance of an opinion of the appellate court. In such cases, the reversal of the case by the appellate court is a question of timing of the original court decision as compared to changes in the law, not one of error by the trial court.

 

So, what is the value of this book?  How can the trial lawyer use it to help his or her clients given the limitations expressed above? Permit me to digress slightly.

 

You have seen the coffee cups or t-shirts that proclaim, “A good lawyer knows the law, but a great lawyer knows the judge.”

 

Some read this phrase as suggesting that the “great lawyer” is one who has an improper relationship with the judge – that he or she can use a personal relationship to improperly influence the judge.  But most lawyers know better.  Most lawyers understand that “knowing the judge” means knowing the judge’s background, preferences concerning the presentation of evidence (including exhibits), arguments of motions, drafting of proposed orders, and given that experience, how he or she is likely to rule on a particular issue.  “Knowing the judge” also means knowing the local rules, local forms, local customs, and what things irritate the judge (and every judge is irritated by at least one thing that lawyers or litigants may do).

 

Many lawyers, particularly those in more rural areas of the state or who limit their practice to one area of law, understand the personality and preferences of the judges they see on a regular basis. Many of these lawyers may have a fair advantage appearing before that judge. (The advantage is “fair” because it results from experience and knowledge.)  That advantage – knowing how the judge thinks and his or her preferences – is not outcome-determinative, but it still may be an advantage, similar to a sports team playing on their home field.

 

Why did I say it “may” be an advantage, given what I said earlier about the benefits of “knowing the judge?”  Because simply knowing the judge’s thought processes and preferences is not enough. You still need to have the law and the facts on your client’s side.  And you need to be prepared to be able to give the judge what he or she needs to know to make a ruling.

 

So, the purpose of “The Book” is to give Tennessee lawyers case-related information to help them understand the trial judge who will rule on their client’s case or preside over a jury trial. By looking at past appellate court rulings arising from cases decided by the trial judge, anyone unfamiliar with a judge can get a “feel” for the judge. The case data contained herein does not compare with daily or weekly appearances in front of the judge on issues like a given case, but it is readily available information that give you an idea of how the judge has ruled in the past on a variety of matters.

 

The cases included are those originally decided by the trial judge that were in appellate court opinions released on or after January 1, 2022.  Note that there are a substantial number of judges who first took office in 2022 and thus it is reasonable to assume that there will be no appellate decisions for such judges until late 2023 or 2024.

 

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