Thursday, March 9, 2017

During Sentencing, Judges Need Not Reply to Every Argument by Defendant

Not unreasonable in sentencing proceedings for a judge to not address every argument the defendant proffers as long as the judge follows the sentencing guidelines

United States v. Wireman, 2017 BL 60890, 10th Cir., No. 15-3291, 2/28/17.

The Tenth Circuit held that judges do not need to address every argument that a defendant proffers during the sentencing stages of the criminal proceedings as long as a judge follows the sentencing guidelines. In the case, the sentencing judge “alluded to the memorandum” offered by the defendant, but did not speak at length about it. While the defendant offered mitigating factors during the process, it was not procedurally unreasonable for the district court to ignore some of his arguments. After reviewing the district court’s reasoning for the defendant’s sentence, the Tenth Circuit found that the court acted reasonably and had no need to address the arguments of the defendant. The circuit court, however, did encourage judges to go beyond the bare minimum during sentencing and to address and refute any and all arguments a defendant might pose.

Judge Under Investigation Should Have Recused Himself From Trial

A trial judge that was under a bribery investigation by the same district attorney’s office that was prosecuting a defendant in his court should have recused himself from the trial

Rippo v. Baker, U.S., No. 16-6316, 3/6/17.

The United States Supreme Court held that due process under the Fourteenth Amendment requires that a judge recuse himself while under criminal investigation by the same prosecuting office as a defendant in his court. Before trial, the defendant moved to have the judge recuse himself because of the possibility the judge would not be impartial in adjudicating the criminal proceedings. The motion was denied and the defendant sentenced to death. The Supreme Court vacated the judgment, finding that the Due Process Clause may sometimes demand recusal even when a judge “has no actual bias.” In their opinion, the court found that “Recusal is required when….the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.”

Lesser DUI Charge Blocked by Double Jeopardy in DUI-Based Vehicular Homicide

When the elements of a lesser charge are incorporated in another and greater crime, double jeopardy bars prosecutors from charging the defendants with the lesser crime

Reyna-Abarca v. People, 2017 BL 59224, Colo., No. 13SC725, 2/27/17.

The Colorado Supreme Court held that double jeopardy bars charges of lesser crimes that incorporate the same elements of similar, yet greater, crime. In the case, the defendant was charged with a DUI as well as vehicular homicide-DUI, which incorporates the same elements of the DUI charge. The court used the test developed in Schmuck v. United States, 489 U.S. 705, 716 (1989), which defines a “lesser included offense.” In the test, if all of the elements of a lesser offense are also included in the greater offense, then the lesser offense is barred.

Inconsistencies between Pretrial Statements and In-Court Testimony Does Not Render Testimony False

The statements made by three witnesses pretrial that were inconsistent with their in-court testimony does not render that testimony inherently false

 State v. Prater, 2017 UT 13.

The Utah Supreme Court found that inconsistent statements made before trial that conflict with later in-court testimony does not make the testimony inherently false. The testimony at issue was provided by three different witnesses to a murder. Although each witness provided false information or denied knowledge of the incident to the police in the initial police reports regarding the murder, their accurate testimony was still submitted to the jury by the district court judge. The defendant argued on appeal claiming that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction because the testimony was “inherently improbable.” The Supreme Court rejected this argument, finding that despite the inconsistencies in statement and testimony, the jury is able to weigh and assess the credibility of the evidence. 

The court reaffirmed the principles developed in State v. Workman, 852 P.2d 981 (Utah 1993), holding that the “jury serves as the exclusive judge of both the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given particular evidence.” The definition of inherently improbable testimony was also expanded under State v. Robbins to “include circumstances where a witness’s testimony is incredibly dubious and, as such, apparently false.” The Court in that decision held that “where (1) there are material inconsistencies in the testimony and (2) there is no other circumstantial or direct evidence of the defendant’s guilt” may the district court “reevaluate the jury’s credibility determinations.” In such instances, a district court can find the testimony false. The three witnesses and their testimony, while inconsistent, had other circumstantial and direct evidence to bolster their veracity and it was not an error of the court to submit their testimony to the jury.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Juror’s Racial Bias Enough to Impeach Verdict and Set New Trial

Revelations of a juror’s racial bias during deliberation opens up the jury verdict to impeachment and allows a court to considers the statement’s in whether to grant a new trial.

Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 580 U.S. ___ (2017).

The Supreme Court held that statements made by a juror during a trial that espouses animus or a bias based on race may violate a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by an impartial jury. In the case, the defendant was convicted of several sex crimes involving minors. After the trial, the defense counsel spoke to jurors about the case and during the conversation, two jurors came forward to alert the defense counsel that one juror made racially disparaging remarks about the defendant to garner support for the conviction verdict. After this discovery, the counsel for the defendant moved for a new trial. The trial court, however, denied the motion under the Colorado rule modeled after FRE 606(b), which prohibits the impeachment of a jury verdict based on statements made by a juror.

The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the decision of the Colorado courts, noting the historical racial bias “implicates unique historical constitutional, and institutional concerns.” Moreover, the court stated “Racial bias is distinct in a pragmatic sense,” while there are safeguards such voir dire or juror observation during the trial, these mechanisms “may be compromised, or….prove insufficient.”

When there is a case where a juror makes a “clear statement that indicates…racial stereotypes or animus [used] to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule gives way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.” To show that a racially biased statement impeded a fair trial, there must be a showing that one or more jurors made overtly biased statements that raise doubt on the fairness of the jury deliberations and verdict. The statement must also “show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.”