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Judges: Court should have questioned jurors

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Judges on the Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed as to whether a man's murder conviction should be overturned because the trial court failed to investigate the impact of threats made against the jury. The majority determined the lack of action by the trial court resulted in a fundamental error that required reversing the conviction, but that he could be retried.

"We recognize that jurors need not be absolutely insulated from all extraneous influences regarding a case," wrote Judge Nancy Vaidik for the majority. "But in this case, where the trial court instituted protective measures known to the jury as a result of juror reports of being threatened, the trial court abused its discretion by not inquiring as to the impact of those threats on the jury's impartiality."

In Chawknee Caruthers v. State of Indiana,  No. 46A05-0810-CR-623, Chawknee Caruthers appealed his murder conviction and finding he is a habitual offender following the murder of the man Caruthers believed punched and choked him earlier the same day as the murder. Eyewitnesses to the shooting, Caruthers' confessions to his friend and her mother, and other evidence led to his conviction.

At trial, the defense counsel informed the judge that at least one of the jurors felt intimidated by actions attributed to Caruthers, his family, or others associated with him. The trial court continued with the trial without questioning the jurors, but did assign extra security measures for the jurors.

On appeal, Caruthers argued his trial counsel was ineffective, the trial court erred by failing to investigate the jury sua sponte after the allegation of jury tampering was raised, and there wasn't enough evidence to convict him because the testimony of two eyewitnesses was incredibly dubious.

The trial court noted that the attorney representing Caruthers on appeal is the same one who represented him during the guilt and habitual offender phases, so he can't argue that he was ineffective per the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Addressing the trial court's failure to sua sponte question the jury regarding the threats, Judges Vaidik and Edward Najam believed the court should have done so to ensure Caruthers' right to an impartial jury wasn't violated, even if Caruthers didn't move for a polling of the jury.

"Although it was commendable for the trial court to take action to protect the jury's safety, the trial court's actions, without further investigation into the possible threats, could have led the jurors, including any jurors not directly exposed to threats, to believe that the judge believed that they were in danger and that they were, in fact, genuinely in danger," she wrote.

Even though there was sufficient evidence to convict Caruthers, the failure to ensure during trial that the defendant was tried by an impartial jury constitutes fundamental error that warrants a new trial.

Judge Ezra Friedlander dissented, agreeing with the state that the harmless error doctrine should apply to defeat Caruthers' claim of fundamental error.

"In my view, although the court should have inquired further as to the effect on the jury, if any, of the alleged actions, the failure to do so did not rise to the level of fundamental error. Thus, I would dispose of this argument by noting that it has not been preserved," he wrote.

Judge Friedlander did agree with the majority that there was sufficient evidence to support Caruthers' murder conviction and that the testimony of two witnesses in the car with him during the shooting doesn't fall under the incredible dubiosity rule.

The majority noted the state isn't barred from retrying Caruthers and can also re-prosecute the habitual offender enhancement.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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