By Bobby Allyn / The Tennessean
Under Tennessee law, a victim of statutory rape can be considered
an accomplice in the crime against her, though that might not be the
case for long.
The state Supreme Court has agreed to take on a
case involving a 14-year-old girl from Arkansas and a Memphis man, which
could lead it to dust off and possibly overturn the arcane
interpretation of the law.
The rule, which has gone unchallenged
for more than a century, emerged from an 1895 incest case in which a
Tennessee court found no "evidence of force" in a case involving an
uncle having sex with his niece. The court ruled, however, that both
could be convicted of incest.
To have such an interpretation on the books in the 21st century is an outrage, some observers say.
cannot expect victims to feel safe enough to break free and seek relief
when they face the prospect of being victimized again by our legal
system," said Cathy Gurley, executive director of You Have the Power, a
victims' rights organization.
The rule, she said, "undermines society's obligation to protect children."
high court recently agreed to hear the case of Dewayne Collier, whom a
Shelby County jury convicted in 2010 of aggravated statutory rape.
Collier, through his attorneys, has maintained his innocence from the
In its final appeal stage, the high court expressed keen
interest in the thorny questions raised by Collier's case: Can the
victim of a sexual offense be a criminal accomplice? If so, do
prosecutors need supporting evidence beyond an accomplice's testimony to
convict a defendant?
Both questions, according to legal experts, have far-reaching implications for how sex crimes are prosecuted in Tennessee.
the court rules that additional evidence is not needed for a
conviction, prosecutors will have an easier time winning in court, said
David Raybin, a longtime Nashville defense attorney. And classifying a
statutory rape victim as an accomplice, he says, "disparages the
On that point, some attorneys on the opposite side of the courtroom seemed to agree.
accomplice law is somewhat unique to Tennessee," Brian Holmgren, a
Davidson County assistant district attorney, said. "Classifying a victim
as an accomplice is not usually helpful to a prosecution."
The 'accomplice' appeal
On Sept. 8 2008, a 14-year-old girl had planned to perform with her
high school band at a football game in Earle, Ark., a town of 3,000 on
the Tennessee-Arkansas border in which nearly half the population lives
But instead, the teenager went to a friend's house and
called Collier, who lived in Memphis, and asked him to pick her up,
according to prosecutors, who allege that the two had sex multiple
Authorities say Collier was an old friend of the teenager's
father. Before picking her up, she lied and told her friend that
Collier was her uncle.
The girl's mother called police when her daughter never returned home. Police issued an Amber Alert.
arrived to the girl's house and questioned her after Collier brought
her home the next evening, according to authorities. She then confessed
to police about what had happened, including the multiple sex acts,
which she said were consensual.
After a jury convicted Collier
with aggravated statutory rape in 2010, his attorneys appealed. Part of
his attorney's defense was that since the girl was technically an
accomplice in the sex acts, her testimony needed additional proof.
The Court of Criminal Appeals in Jackson concluded in 2011 that there was enough corroborating evidence to convict Collier.
attorney Raybin theorizes that the high court agreed to take the case
to recast the state law's definition of an accomplice, narrowing it
enough so that the victim of a sex crime cannot be charged.
court will likely change the test for what an accomplice is from
participating in a crime to whether you can be charged with it," Raybin
said. "When you apply the traditional test to a statutory rape case, it
doesn't make sense."
a more enlightened view
Although defense attorneys say the accomplice law rarely arises in rape cases, it has yielded some notorious precedents.
1960, for instance, the high court in Tennessee, in Scott v. State,
reversed the conviction of a father who was accused of having sex with
his daughter multiple times over two years.
Despite the accusation
that the daughter gave birth to an illegitimate child, and without the
benefit of DNA evidence, the father was exonerated. The court ruled that
there was not enough evidence beyond the daughter's testimony. Under
state law, however, she was considered an accomplice.
in the Collier case said the high court will likely consider the
accomplice question in November, when the court reviews its Jackson,
Prosecutor Holmgren said changing the measure should be uncontroversial.
perspective of sexual abuse has become more enlightened in the past 120
years," Holmgren said. "I dare say that if you ask the state
legislators whether a child victim is an accomplice, surely they would