Appeals court overturns Cupp’s decision to deny diversion in pedestrian death
Published 10:28 am Tuesday, August 18, 2015
An appeals court has overturned a local judge’s decision to deny diversion to an Elizabethton woman convicted of leaving the scene of an accident that left a pedestrian dead.
In its reversal of the lower court’s decision, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals issued an opinion on August 12 citing an “abuse of discretion” along with what it called a “tainted” decision making process used by former Judge Robert Cupp in his decision to deny diversion to Chyanne Elizabeth Gobble, 22, of Elizabethton. Gobble pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving death, a Class E felony under state law, in July 2014.
Gobble was indicted in May 2014 in connection with a 2013 motor vehicle accident on the Elizabethton Highway in the area of Taylortown Road, in which police said she struck a pedestrian and left the scene. The pedestrian, Christopher Dale Hughes, 39, later died as a result of his injuries.
Gobble entered her guilty plea under what is called an “open plea,” which means sentencing was left up to the court to decide as opposed to an agreement worked out between the defendant and the state.
As part of the plea proceedings, Gobble’s attorneys Brad Sproles and Joshua Hardin were seeking judicial diversion for their client. Under state law, first-time offenders may be eligible to have their record expunged of their conviction if they successfully complete the terms for diversion set forth by the court.
During the sentencing hearing, Cupp denied Gobble diversion, saying multiple times he felt she had already been given “a gift” by being charged with leaving the scene of an accident and not vehicular homicide.
The Appellate Court opinion took issue with Cupp’s statements regarding what he felt Gobble “should have” been charged with.
The opinion, written by Judge Timothy Easter and joined by Judges Robert Wedemeyer and D. Kelly Thomas Jr., said the higher court found that Cupp erred in considering that Gobble ‘should have’ been charged with vehicular homicide for three reasons: it violated her constitution due process right to notice of the charges she would have to defend herself against; it violated separation of powers by questioning the charging decision made by the prosecutor; and it did not affect any of the common law factors which pertained to the case under state law.
“Due to the repeated references through the trial court’s ruling to the fact that (Gobble) was not charged with vehicular homicide, it is clear that this irrelevant factor tainted the court’s decision-making process such that the presumption of reasonableness standard is not appropriate,” the opinion said.
The appellate court also notes in its opinion that Gobble was never charged with vehicular homicide either by officers or through the grand jury proceedings. The first time the charge of vehicular homicide is mentioned, the opinion said, is during the state’s final closing arguments in the sentencing hearing when Cupp asked the prosecutor why Gobble had not been charged with vehicular homicide.
The appellate court also notes Cupp not only considered an irrelevant factor when reaching his decision on diversion, the justices said he failed to properly consider the relevant factors in the decision.
In its decision, the court said even if Gobble had been convicted of vehicular homicide, she would have still be eligible for judicial diversion based on state law and her own lack of a criminal history. The court also noted Gobble’s community and social ties as well as her enrollment in college weighed in her favor when considering diversion.
“On the whole, we fail to see how, under the circumstances of this case, adding the label of ‘convicted felon’ to (Gobble) will add to the cause of justice,” the opinion said. “The facts of her youth and promising life ahead do not escape us. Giving her an opportunity to mature and demonstrate substantial and better judgment by adhering to a program of diversion will not defeat the cause of justice.”
After denying Gobble diversion, Cupp sentenced her to two years, but he suspended all but 30 days of the sentence. Gobble was also ordered to serve two years of probation through the Tennessee Department of Probation and Parole.
As part of its decision, the appellate court granted Gobble diversion, but ordered that she be placed on judicial diversion for a period of four years under the same terms and conditions of probation imposed by Cupp. She has already served her 30 days in jail.