Brief Fact Summary.
Rogers (Defendant) was convicted of murder when the victim he assaulted died 15 months after the assault. Defendant appealed his conviction, claiming that the Tennessee Supreme Court’s abolishment of the common law “year and a day” rule after the offense was committed violated ex post facto principles.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A judicial alteration of common law doctrines only violates ex post facto principles when the alteration is unexpected and indefensible. This is determined by examining the law expressed prior to the conduct underlying the criminal offense.
Defendant stabbed the victim in the heart, leading to cardiac arrest and coma. After 15 months, the victim died of a complication from the coma. Defendant was then convicted of second degree murder. At common law, the “year and a day” rule held that a victim must die within a year and a day of the defendant’s actions for the defendant to be guilty of murder. The statute under which Defendant was convicted made no mention of this rule. The Tennessee Supreme Court abolished the “year and a day” rule and upheld Defendant’s conviction. He then sought certiorari on the basis that this abolition violated ex post facto principles.
Does a judicial alteration of common law doctrine only violate ex post facto principles when the alteration is unexpected and indefensible?
(O’Connor, J.) Yes. A judicial alteration of common law doctrines only violates ex post facto principles when the alteration is unexpected and indefensible. This is determined by examining the law expressed prior to the conduct underlying the criminal offense. In this case, the Tennessee court’s abolition of the “year and a day” rule was neither unexpected nor indefensible. The rule is regarded as outdated and has been judicially abolished in many of the jurisdictions that have encountered the issue. When a court determines whether a common law doctrine should be altered or modified, it frequently looks at the decisions of other jurisdictions. The fact that so many jurisdictions have abolished this outdated rule is relevant to whether Tennessee’s abolition could be seen as unexpected or indefensible by reference to the law as it existed when the act was committed. Affirmed.
(Scalia, J.) When the crime was committed, the offense was manslaughter and not murder under the common law. The conviction for murder therefore violates the ex post facto principles.
In examining the law as it existed when the offense was committed, the Court fund that the “year and a day” rule did not exist as part of the Tennessee statutory criminal code and had never been the grounds for a decision in any murder prosecution in Tennessee.