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COA divided on whether 'bully' comments require new trial

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The Indiana Court of Appeals split in affirming a man’s drunk-driving conviction, with the dissenting judge finding the prosecutor’s questions to the jury and repeated reference to the defendant as a bully at trial made a fair trial impossible.

In Martin Roy Emerson v. State of Indiana, No. 07A01-1009-CR-486, Martin Emerson appealed his convictions of Class C misdemeanor operating a vehicle while intoxicated and Class C felony operating a vehicle while driving privileges are forfeited for life. A Nashville police officer clocked a van going more than 40 mph over the speed limit. She saw a man driving the van, and when she tried to pull the car over, the driver pulled into a driveway. As she came upon the vehicle, she saw the man sitting in the passenger seat and a woman getting into the car through the driver’s side door. That woman, Sophia Morgan, told the officer that the man, Emerson, was driving and made her switch seats. Emerson screamed at the officer and wasn’t compliant with her commands, so he was eventually handcuffed. Emerson smelled of alcohol. He later admitted at jail he had been drinking.

The Court of Appeals affirmed his felony conviction of operating a vehicle while driving privileges are forfeited for life. But the judges disagreed as to whether the prosecutor’s comments during voir dire and opening and closing statements regarding bullies was a fundamental error requiring a new trial. Emerson didn’t object to the statements during trial.

During voir dire, the prosecutor asked prospective jurors questions such as if they would do something just because a bully told them to, and if they would believe a statement was true just because a bully said it. During opening and closing arguments, the prosecutor made comments like Emerson “tried to bully his way out of it” and the jurors should “stand up to this bully and tell him that he committed a crime with a verdict of guilty.”

Judges Cale Bradford and Nancy Vaidik didn’t believe the prosecutor’s improper, but fleeting, request that the jury stand up to the defendant made it impossible for Emerson to receive a fair trial. They also found the prosecutor’s comments were relevant to the case and were clear that the statements amounted to nothing more than his opinion.

Senior Judge Betty Barteau disagreed, finding the statements taken as a whole conditioned the jury to conclude that Emerson was a person of poor character and encouraged the jury to stand up to him and find him guilty because of perceived character flaws rather than because he committed the offense at issue.

She would reverse his OWI conviction and recommend he be retried. She would allow his conviction for operating a vehicle while driving privileges are forfeited for life to stand because the trial court provided new preliminary and final jury instructions for that phase of the trial and the state did not characterize Emerson as a bully during that portion of the trial.

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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