A criminal statute must give fair warning of the conduct that it makes a crime. Deprivation of the right to fair warning can result both from vague statutory language and from an unforeseeable and retroactive judicial expansion of statutory language that appears narrow and precise on its face. For that reason, if a judicial construction of a criminal statute is unexpected and indefensible by reference to the law which had been expressed prior to the conduct in issue, the construction must not be given retroactive effect.
Prior to his death, the victim remained comatose for approximately 15 months after being stabbed by petitioner. Petitioner was convicted of murder, and alleged that his conviction was precluded under common law since the victim did not die within a year and a day after petitioner's act. Upon petition for writ of certiorari, petitioner appealed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, which judicially abolished the year and a day rule in the state and upheld petitioner's conviction. Judgment upholding petitioner's conviction was affirmed.
Did the retroactive application of the judicial decree violate petitioner's right to Due Process?
The United States Supreme Court held that, while petitioner was entitled to fair warning of conduct deemed criminal, the abolition of the year and a day rule after petitioner stabbed the victim did not violate due process since elimination of the rule was not unexpected and indefensible by reference to the law which had been expressed prior to the stabbing. The rule was outdated and archaic, abolished in numerous other jurisdictions, and was never relied upon as a ground of decision. Abolishing the rule thus constituted the routine exercise of common law decisionmaking, rather than a marked and unpredictable departure from prior precedent, which brought the law into conformity with reason and common sense.