Tennessee Supreme Court Defines "Serious Bodily Injury"


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 bodily injury."

In 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."

Definition of 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." Id.

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.

Source: State of Tennessee v. Michael Farmer and Anthony Clark