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Inconsistent jury verdicts not reviewable

April 9, 2010

Inconsistent, contradictory, or irreconcilable jury verdicts in criminal cases aren't available for appellate review, the Indiana Supreme Court held Thursday.

The high court granted transfer to Shewanda Beattie v. State of Indiana, No. 82S01-0907-CR-307, to address variations in the state's caselaw on the issue of judicial review of logically inconsistent verdicts in the same case. A jury found Shewanda Beattie guilty of possession of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a family housing complex and possession of marijuana, but not guilty of dealing in cocaine, and possession of cocaine. She challenged that her conviction is fatally inconsistent with her acquittal on the charge of possession of the same cocaine. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the conviction because the jury's verdict left the appellate court unable to determine what evidence the jury believed.

For the most part, Indiana cases have followed U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Dunn v. United States, 284 U.S. 390, 52 S. Ct. 189, 76 L. Ed. 356 (1932), and United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57, 105 S. Ct. 471, 83 L. Ed. 2d 461 (1984). The Powell court affirmed the ruling in Dunn that a criminal defendant convicted by a jury on one count couldn't attack that conviction because it was inconsistent with the jury's verdict of acquittal on another count. Powell emphasized that defendants are already afforded protection against jury irrationality or error by the availability of an independent review for sufficiency of evidence.

One Indiana case, Marsh v. State, 271 Ind. 454, 393 N.E.2d 757 (1979), deviated from this line of authority and ruled that extremely contradictory and irreconcilable verdicts warrant corrective action by the appellate courts. Before the instant case, only in Owsley v. State, 769 N.E.2d 181 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002), has an Indiana appellate court granted relief on this issue.

When a jury returns logically inconsistent verdicts, it could be because the jury misunderstood its instructions or chose to exercise lenity, wrote Justice Brent Dickson. A jury's right to exercise lenity is an important component of the criminal justice system, he continued. Juries can also return inconsistent verdicts because of a compromise among disagreeing jurors, to avoid an all-or-nothing verdict, or for other reasons.

The justices unanimously adopted the federal rule expressed in Dunn and Powell and upheld Beattie's convictions.

"Concluding that the contrasting 'extremely contradictory and irreconcilable' standard devised in Marsh has proven in practice to be unhelpful and inconsistent with Indiana's strong respect for the conscientiousness, wisdom, and common sense of juries, we overrule the standard advanced in Marsh and disapprove of Owsley," Justice Dickson wrote. "Jury verdicts in criminal cases are not subject to appellate review on grounds that they are inconsistent, contradictory, or irreconcilable."

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