Tennessee Star Supreme Court Justice Series: Major Opinions by Justice Holly Kirby

As Tennesseans prepare to head to the polls on August 4, where they will vote on whether to retain the state’s five Supreme Court justices, The Tennessee Star has completed a profile on each justice currently sitting on the bench.

Last week, The Star profiled Justice Holly Kirby.

“Supreme Court Justice Holly Kirby is a native of Memphis who has served on the bench since 2014,” The Star reported. “She earned an undergraduate degree from Memphis State University and a law degree from Memphis State School of Law.”

In her long career in law, she has also worked in private practice, clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and served on the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Kirby in 2021 filed an opinion in the case of State of Tennessee v. Michael Rimmer, one of the state’s most high-profile death row inmates.

“This is a direct appeal in a capital case,” Kirby’s opinion explains. “The defendant had one prior trial. In the second trial, a Shelby County jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, murder in the perpetration of robbery, and aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to death plus a consecutive 18 years of incarceration. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the convictions and the sentence. We now consider the appeal on automatic review pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-206(a)(1).”

Rimmer was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998 after abducting and murdering Ricci Lynn Ellsworth, who disappeared from the Memphis Inn in Shelby County in 1997. Ellsworth’s body was never found.

After an appellate court ruled that Rimmer’s counsel had been ineffective, he won a second trial, which took place in 2016. Again he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Kirby wrote on behalf of the court:

We hold the following: (1) based on sequential jury instructions given in the first trial, the first jury did not have a full opportunity to consider the felony murder count, so double jeopardy principles did not bar retrial on the felony murder count; (2) alleged prosecutorial misconduct in the first trial did not trigger double jeopardy protections and did not bar retrial of the defendant; (3) because the State did not have a duty to preserve the defendant’s vehicle, the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress DNA evidence from the vehicle; (4) the trial court did not err under Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b) in admitting evidence of the defendant’s prior convictions for rape and assault of the victim; and (5) the trial court did not err under Rule 404(b) in admitting evidence of the defendant’s escape attempts and corroborating evidence of homemade shanks in his cell. We hold further that imposition of the death penalty is not arbitrary, given the circumstances of the crime; that the evidence supports the jury’s finding that the State proved one aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt; that the evidence supports the jury’s conclusion that the aggravating circumstance outweighed any mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt; and that the sentence of death is neither excessive nor disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases. As to the remaining issues raised by the defendant, we agree with the conclusions of the Court of Criminal Appeals and attach as an appendix to this opinion the relevant portions of the intermediate court’s decision. We affirm the convictions and the sentence.

Rimmer’s case made headlines again earlier this year.

After the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson affirmed his 2016 conviction, Rimmer attempted to garner relief from the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to take his case.

He was scheduled to be executed on May 10, but filed a new round of appeals to which he is legally entitled.

“Rimmer’s legal team raised other issues, including that the second trial in 2016 violated Rimmer’s constitutional right against double jeopardy – being tried twice for the same crime,” according to Commercial Appeal. “The judge said that as soon as Rimmer filed the March 28 motion, Tennessee law compelled him to issue a stay of execution.”

There is no timetable for Rimmer’s execution.

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Pete D’Abrosca is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Holly Kirby” by Tennessee State Courts.


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2 Thoughts to “Tennessee Star Supreme Court Justice Series: Major Opinions by Justice Holly Kirby”

  1. Aries9899

    I voted against retaining all judges. Everything about their judicial policy is more secret than SCOTUS. I wish more people would do this but I doubt it will happen. I also had to do quite a few write ins since I refuse to vote for Lee and few other local races. I have no doubt it’s a waste of time but then I never did vote for Lamar Alexander or Bob Corker.

  2. 83ragtop50

    Vote against retention for ALL judges. That whole process stinks. This process simply assures that once a judge, always a judge. I wonder who in the legislature dreamt up this crazy thing.