When two different people read the same criminal statute it is possible
that those two individuals could come away with two entirely different
interpretations of the same sentence. Normally this wouldn't cause
much alarm, but when one of the people reading the statute is a prosecutor,
an improper interpretation could mean adding years to a defendant's
potential criminal liability. Earlier this year the Tennessee Supreme
Court heard the case of
State v. Michael Farmer and Anthony Clark, which revolved around the interpretation of the phrase "serious
Farmer the facts of the case were rather simple. During a robbery, one of the
defendants shot the victim in the leg. The big question to be answered
was whether or not the victim sustained "serious bodily injury."
At trial the State put on proof that showed the bullet impacted the victims'
leg, passed through, and only caused a superficial wound which only required
less than an hour of medical treatment in the emergency room before the
victim was discharged. Further, the victim testified at trial that he
has not had any further problems with this leg. Despite these facts, Michael
Farmer and Anthony Clark were convicted of Especially Aggravated Robbery,
which is a Class A Felony in Tennessee. In fact, especially aggravated
robbery is the highest-grade robbery offense in Tennessee. The charge
of especially aggravated robbery requires both the use of a deadly weapon
and the victim must sustain a serious bodily injury. In the
Farmer case it was clear that the defendants used a deadly weapon, therefore the
trial hinged on the definition of "serious bodily injury" and
whether or not the gunshot wound suffered by the victim constituted a
"serious bodily injury."
Tennessee Code Annotated defines "serous bodily injury" as "bodily
injury that involves: (A) A substantial risk of death; (B) Protracted
unconsciousness (C) Extreme physical pain; (D) Protracted or obvious disfigurement;
[or] (E) Protracted loss or substantial impairment of a function of a
bodily member, organ or mental faculty."
The interpretation of this statute is so important because absent "serious
bodily injury" the defendants would have likely faced a substantially
less serious charge, such as simple assault, a class A misdemeanor. Meaning,
the phrase "serious bodily injury" can result in a potential
sentence of fifteen years as opposed to a sentence of as little as one
year. Both Defendants were convicted of especially aggravated robbery
at Trial and both defendants appealed. The Tennessee Court of Criminal
Appeals upheld the conviction.
It comes as no surprise that the Tennessee Supreme Court heard this case
because under the trial and court of appeals definitions of "serious
bodily injury" any injury whatsoever inflicted by an instrument such
as a gun or knife would likely be sufficient under the statute.
The Tennessee Supreme Court held that in order to be convicted of Especially
Aggravated robbery, the state must show the victims' injury must involve
a substantial risk of death. The court went on to say that " in determining
whether there was a "serious bodily injury" based on a "substantial
risk of death," we must look to the injury that occurred rather than
the injury that
could have occurred or the manner in which it occurred."
All too often criminal offenses and their definitions include technical
or ambiguous terms whose interpretations can have a substantial impact
on potential penalties for offenders. Because of this issue it is important that you
contact an experienced criminal defense attorney if you have been charged with a crime.
State of Tennessee v. Michael Farmer and Anthony Clark