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A knowing second degree murder is strictly a result-of-conduct offense. A jury instruction that allows a jury to convict on second degree murder based only upon awareness of the nature of the conduct or circumstances surrounding the conduct improperly lessens the State's burden of proof. For second degree murder, a defendant must be aware that his or her conduct is reasonably certain to cause death. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-302(b).
James Noble Page, a 15-year-old defendant, struck the 18-year-old victim in the head with a baseball bat after a verbal confrontation, and the victim died as a result of the injury. The trial court instructed the jury that the "knowing" element of second-degree murder could be established by defendant's awareness: (1) that his conduct was of a particular nature; (2) that a particular circumstance existed; or (3) that the conduct was reasonably certain to cause the result. The State conceded the instruction was error, but contended it was harmless. After a jury trial, the defendant was convicted as charged and sentenced to fifteen years in the Department of Correction. Defendant appealed.
The appellate court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. The appellate court concluded second degree murder was a result-of-conduct offense, and allowing the jury to convict based upon awareness of the nature of the conduct or circumstances surrounding the conduct erroneously lessened the State's burden of proof for the offense. The court held that the error in the jury charge was not harmless, because the only real issue at trial was the degree of homicide committed, which in turn rested upon the mens rea and appropriate conduct element.