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Justices clarify jury taint, mistrial standards

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Because the Indiana Court of Appeals cited three different mistrial standards in a man’s appeal of the denial of his motion for a mistrial, the Indiana Supreme Court took his case to clarify its precedent for trial courts to use to determine whether a mistrial is a cure for a jury taint.

Five days into Ernesto Ramirez’s murder and criminal gang activity trial, Juror 282 informed the court about a shooting at her home the night before. The juror said her neighbor heard gun shots in the apartment above her and “told them I was a jury member in a case.” She also told other jurors about the incident. She was removed from the jury, but the trial court denied Ramirez’s motion for a mistrial. The judge found the jury could remain impartial.

“Federal and Indiana precedent has narrowed the presumption of prejudice to apply in cases where the defendants show more than just potential taint – but some Indiana precedent, including our own, has applied that presumption inconsistently,” Justice Loretta Rush wrote in Ernesto Roberto Ramirez v. State of Indiana, 45S05-1305-CR-331. “We now clarify its precise scope, and reiterate the proper process for trial courts to address jury taint in the courtroom. We hold that no presumption applies in Ramirez’s case, and that the trial court’s approach in addressing his allegation of jury taint was correct.”

Rush pointed to previous cases in which Indiana courts have cited the presumption of prejudice but didn’t follow it. One court even concluded that the presumption of prejudice no longer existed in Indiana. But the presumption of prejudice does remain under Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227, 229 (1954), and Indiana Supreme Court precedent.

“Trial courts should apply the presumption of prejudice analysis of Currin (v. State) in the context of the procedures we established in Lindsey (v. State),” Rush wrote. “Trial courts must immediately investigate suspected jury taint by thoroughly interviewing jurors collectively and individually, if necessary.

“Once defendants move for mistrial, the trial courts should assess whether or not there is enough evidence to meet the two-part showing under Currin. If so, then the presumption of prejudice applies and the burden shifts to the State to prove harmless error. If not, then the trial courts should determine whether a juror’s misconduct was gross or probably harmed the defendant.”  

Ramirez failed to show that Juror 282’s apartment incident was related to his case. She was not even sure if her status as a juror trigged the apartment shooting. Her own narration strongly suggests that no one even entered her apartment. The justices affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision to uphold Ramirez’s sentence.

Justice Mark Massa concurred in result, writing that the majority attempted to create order by carving out a new analytical framework and questioning one of the high court’s prior decisions: Griffin v. State, 754 N.E.2d 899, (Ind. 2001). He believes the justices can synthesize the three seminal federal decisions on this issue – Remmer, Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209 (1982), and United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725 (1993), and articulate a reasonable rule without “doing violence to our precedent.”
 

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