NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- What should happen when a prosecutor is involved in a case with a murder defendant and then becomes a judge?
Should that judge later be allowed to preside over sentencing that same defendant to death?
In 2011, the Tennessee Supreme Court said no.
Now, an opposition group claims that case is proof that the justices are "liberal on crime."
That group, the Tennessee Forum, is leading the charge to urge voters to replace three incumbent Supreme Court justices who were appointed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Justices Connie Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade face a retain-or-replace vote on the August ballot.
When the Tennessee Forum launched its TV attack, the ad carried small print attributing the "liberal on crime" claim to a 2013 ruling involving convicted killer Prince Adams.
As NewsChannel 5 Investigates pointed out , the Supreme Court had actually rejected the killer's appeal, upholding both his conviction and his life sentence.
Recently, the group modified that same TV ad to attribute the "liberal on crime" claim to a 2011 ruling in the case of death row inmate Leonard Edward Smith.
It's a case that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey had highlighted in a presentation that he put together to try to convince business interests to put up money for a campaign against the justices.
Smith was convicted for his role in the 1984 murders of two store clerks in Sullivan County, Novella Webb and John Pierce. He was sentenced to death for killing Webb.
In that 2011, the unanimous court upheld Smith's conviction in both cases, but they overturned the death penalty and sent it back to the lower court for a new sentencing.
Part of the concern, as we first reported , was evidence that Smith might be intellectually disabled.
"When a person is determined to be intellectually disabled, the Supreme Court of the United States of America says he cannot be executed - there was no choice," Republican lawyer Lew Conner told NewsChannel 5 back in May.
Even more curious is the role of Lynn W. Brown -- noted in the opinion as both "prosecutor Brown" and "Judge Brown."
Here is the court's summary:
"Prosecutor Brown was actively involved in prosecuting Smith on separate criminal charges at the same time that Smith was being prosecuted and tried for the Sullivan County murders of Pierce and Webb. Prosecutor Brown was in regular communication with prosecutor Wells regarding the Sullivan County cases. Prosecutor Brown requested and was provided with a copy of an important piece of evidence in the Pierce and Webb murder cases – Smith’s statement to law enforcement given shortly after his arrest regarding his involvement in the Pierce and Webb murders. Judge Brown, in his previous role as prosecutor, had been in possession of critical evidence introduced in Smith’s murder case. Smith’s robbery conviction that prosecutor Brown obtained was later used as an aggravating circumstance in the sentencing hearing over which Judge Brown presided, resulting in the imposition of the death penalty."
In the end, the unanimous court concluded that "the justice meted out in this case did not 'satisfy the appearance of justice.'"
"The potential injury to the judicial process due to the appearance of impropriety and unfair lack of impartiality by a judge imposing a death sentence is too great to allow the sentence of death to stand," the opinion read.
So does this complicated case prove that the three justices are "liberal on crime"?
You be the judge.
Read the opinion here .