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Justices disagree about jury instruction

October 21, 2008

The Indiana Supreme Court was split in its ruling that a trial court properly instructed a jury regarding a habitual offender finding, with the dissenters arguing the court's instruction was inadequate as compared to the defendant's proposed jury instruction.

In Larry C. Walden v. State, No. 18S02-0710-CR-458, the Supreme Court granted transfer to Larry Walden's appeal to address whether the trial court erred in rejecting Walden's proposed jury instruction regarding the jury's authority to not find him to be a habitual offender. Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justices Frank Sullivan and Theodore Boehm affirmed the trial court's tendered instruction and rejection of Walden's proposed instruction; Justices Brent Dickson and Robert Rucker dissented, finding the trial court's instruction to be too broad for the jury.

The high court examined its earlier rulings in Holden v. State, 788 N.E.2d 1253, 1253-54 (Ind. 2003), which made clear Indiana juries don't have a broad, general nullification power in criminal cases, and Seay v. State, 698 N.E.2d 732, 737 (Ind. 1998), which the court held a jury may make a habitual offender determination "irrespective of the uncontroverted proof of prior felonies."

In Seay, the Supreme Court had found implicitly Article I, Section 19 applies during the habitual offender phase. In the instant case, the majority wrote that statement wasn't necessary in Seay, and the Indiana Constitution shouldn't have been identified as additional support for the holding and now consider those comments to be obiter dicta.

Under the analysis of a trial court's refusal of a jury instruction, the majority found Walden's tendered jury instruction was a correct statement of law and the trial court's jury instruction covered the material by the rejected instruction. The majority found trial court's instruction, "Under the Constitution of Indiana you have the right to determine both the law and the facts," to be of substance the same information contained in Walden's requested instruction.

But Justices Rucker and Dickson believed the trial court's instruction was generic and broad. Walden's instruction gave express guidance to the jury on what it means to determine the law in the habitual offender context, wrote Justice Rucker.

"Simply advising the jury that it has the right to determine the law and the facts falls woefully short of explaining how this right may be exercised. In contrast, Walden's tendered instruction fills this void," wrote Justice Rucker.

Concurring with Justice Rucker in a separate opinion, Justice Dickson wrote he disagreed with the majority's minimization of the role of Article I, Section 19 in Seay. He also wrote he couldn't agree that the trial court's "broad, unspecific, and opaque instruction" was sufficient to inform the jury of the legal principle embodied in Walden's tendered instruction.

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