JACKSON, Tenn. (CN) - A woman convicted of murdering her mother will get a new trial because of prosecutors' "constitutional errors" at trial, including "the lead prosecutor's remark during final closing argument" impugning the woman's exercise of her right to remain silent, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The state supreme court vacated Noura Jackson's conviction, reversed in part the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals, and remanded.
Noura Jackson, then 18, awoke her neighbors by banging on their door at 5 a.m. on June 5, 2005, screaming "My mom, my mom [!] Somebody's breaking into my house [!]" (Brackets in supreme court ruling.)
While on the phone with 911, the neighbors found the Jennifer Jackson's body, along with "a lot of blood," on the floor in a bedroom of the Memphis house where Jackson and her mother lived, the ruling states.
Paramedics "found the victim lying on the floor at the food of the bed, naked, with visible signs of trauma, including stab wounds to her head, neck, and chest," the supreme court wrote. She was declared dead at 5:18 a.m.
At Jackson's 2009 trial, prosecutors said that her motive for killing her mother was to gain control of her recently deceased father's property and "to obtain the proceeds of the victim's life insurance policy and 401(k) account so that she could continue partying and using illegal drugs with her friends - a lifestyle which her mother disapproved of and was taking steps to curtail or end," according to the ruling.
Noura Jackson was charged with first-degree murder in 2005, and convicted of second-degree murder.
She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Noura Jackson claimed on appeal that the lead prosecutor wrongfully commented on her right to remain silent when he walked across the courtroom during closing argument and said "in a loud voice, while raising both arms to point at and gesture toward defendant, 'Just tell us where you were! That's all we are asking, Noura!'"
The state supreme court found that "a constitutionally impermissible comment."
"We conclude that, regardless of the lead prosecutor's intent, the lead prosecutor's remark was of such a character that the jury would necessarily have taken it to be a comment on defendant's exercise of her constitutional right not to testify," Justice Cornelia Clark wrote for the six-member panel. Clark cited the prosecutor's "verbally and physically forceful delivery of the remark."
Jackson also said that her right to due process was violated because prosecutors did not provide her attorneys with a witness's third police statement until after the trial.
The state argued that the statement would not have affected the outcome of the trial, but the court disagreed.
"The various ways in which the defense could have used Mr. Hammack's third statement are significant because the proof against defendant was entirely circumstantial and, although sufficient to support the conviction, cannot be described as overwhelming," Clark wrote. "No physical evidence tied her to the crime, despite the array of physical evidence removed from the scene for analysis."
The state supreme court ruled that "neither of these constitutional violations was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt," so a new trial is needed.
Prosecutors called 45 witnesses and introduced 376 exhibits at trial.