Jury Instructions – Lesser Included Offenses

Except as indicated, all indented material is copied directly from the opinion. 

Decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court

Decisions of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals

State v. Primm, No. M2021-00976-CCA-R3-CD, p. 47 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Jan. 13, 2023).

Whether the trial court should have instructed the jury on a lesser-included offense is a mixed question of law and fact, which we review de novo with no presumption of correctness. State v. Banks, 271 S.W.3d 90, 124 (Tenn. 2008) (citing State v. Hatfield, 130 S.W.3d 40, 41 (Tenn. 2004); Carpenter v. State, 126 S.W.3d 879, 892 (Tenn. 2004)). When addressing issues related to failure to charge lesser-included offenses, appellate courts consider three questions: “(1) whether the offense is a lesser[-]included offense; (2) whether the evidence supports a lesser[-]included offense instruction; and (3) whether the failure to give the instruction is harmless error.” Id. (citing State v. Allen, 69 S.W.3d 181, 187 (Tenn. 2002)).

State v. Hickman, No. E2021-00662-CCA-R3-CD, p. 36 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Oct. 24, 2022).

Although Defendant asserts that the jury failed to abide by the trial court’s sequential jury instruction, we must presume that the jury followed all instructions given by the trial court “‘with commonsense understanding of the instructions in the light of all that has taken place at trial [that is] likely to prevail over technical hairsplitting.’” State v. Knowles, 470 S.W.3d 416, 426 (Tenn. 2015) (quoting Boyde v. California, 494 U.S. 370, 381 (1990)). “To overcome this presumption, the defendant must show by clear and convincing evidence that the jury failed to follow the trial court’s instruction.” State v. Harbison, 539 S.W.3d 149, 163 (Tenn. 2018) (citing State v. Newsome, 744 S.W.2d 911, 915 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1987)).

State of Tennessee v. Lillard, No. M2020-01569-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Mar. 4, 2022).

“Whether the trial court properly instructed the jury on a certain offense is a mixed question  of  law  and  fact,”  which  we  review  de novo  with  no  presumption  of  correctness.  State  v.  Howard, 504 S.W.3d  260,  267  (Tenn.  2016).   A  trial  court  must  instruct  the  jury on  a  lesser-included  offense  if  it  “determines  that  any  evidence  as  to  a  lesser-included offense  exists  that  reasonable  minds  could  accept  and that  the  evidence,  viewed  liberally in the light  most favorable to the lesser-included offense, is legally sufficient to support a conviction.”   Id.  at 268;  see State v. Burns, 6 S.W.3d 453, 469 (Tenn. 1999).  “The failure to instruct the jury on lesser[-]included offenses requires a reversal for a new trial unless a reviewing court determines that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”   State v.  Thomas,  158  S.W.3d  361,  379 (Tenn.  2005)  (citing  State  v.  Ely,  48  S.W.3d  710,  727 (Tenn.  2001)).   A  harmless  error  determination  includes  a  “thorough  examination  of  the record, including the evidence presented at trial, the defendant’s theory of defense, and the verdict returned by the jury.”   State v. Allen, 69 S.W.3d 181, 191 (Tenn. 2002).


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