EJI Wins New Trial for Minister Wrongly Convicted of MurderOctober 03, 2011

EJI won a ruling from the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals granting a new trial to Timothy Tillman, who was convicted of murder in the shooting death of his wife and sentenced to life in prison based on unrelated evidence that the State improperly used to shore up its weak case against him.

Pastor Timothy Tillman was charged with murder after a gun he was carrying into his parsonage after a church turkey shoot accidentally discharged a bullet that fatally struck his wife. He was also charged with possession of a forged instrument when he signed his wife's name on an unsolicited check that arrived months after her death. The two charges were consolidated over defense counsel's objection and tried in a single trial. Mr. Tillman was convicted of both charges.

EJI appealed, arguing that the consolidation was improper because the two charges were not related and evidence about the forgery made the jury more likely to wrongly convict Mr. Tillman of murder despite the lack of evidence that he intentionally, rather than accidentally, fired the shot that killed his wife.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals agreed. It reasoned that the offenses were not connected; they were not committed within a short span of time or as part of the same series of events. "[A]lthough the State alleged that Tillman murdered Janet to obtain the proceeds from her life-insurance policy," the court wrote, "the unsolicited check mailed to Janet three months after her death was completely unforeseeable and was not derived from the murder."

Also, because Mr. Tillman admitted that he forged his wife's name on the unsolicited check and that he had fired the shot that killed her, intent - not identity - was the only disputed issue at trial. Accordingly, the court found, consolidation on the ground that the two crimes were part of a common plan or scheme was also improper.

"[T]he State's implication that Tillman's actions following the fortuitous loan offer proved that, months earlier, he had intended to kill his wife" was "inflammatory and prejudicial," wrote the court, "and it diverted the jury's attention away from the far weaker and unrelated evidence that Tillman had intentionally killed his wife."

Moreover, evidence of the forgery "added a macabre element to the State's evidence about Tillman's actions before Janet's death and made it more likely that the jury would unfairly convict him of murder based on an unrelated incident."

The appeals court reversed both convictions and granted a new trial.