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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. You can put your photos anywhere you like... When someone steals it they know it doesn't belong to them. And, a man getting a divorce is automatically not a nice guy...? That's ridiculous. Since when is need of money a conflict of interest? That would mean that no one should have a job unless they are already financially solvent without a job... A photographer is also under no obligation to use a watermark (again, people know when a photo doesn't belong to them) or provide contact information. Hey, he didn't make it easy for me to pay him so I'll just take it! Well heck, might as well walk out of the grocery store with a cart full of food because the lines are too long and you don't find that convenient. "Only in Indiana." Oh, now you're passing judgement on an entire state... What state do you live in? I need to characterize everyone in your state as ignorant and opinionated. And the final bit of ignorance; assuming a photo anyone would want is lucky and then how much does your camera have to cost to make it a good photo, in your obviously relevant opinion?

  2. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood has stated in “The Rule of Law in Times of Stress” (2003), “that neither laws nor the procedures used to create or implement them should be secret; and . . . the laws must not be arbitrary.” According to the American Bar Association, Wood’s quote drives home this point: The rule of law also requires that people can expect predictable results from the legal system; this is what Judge Wood implies when she says that “the laws must not be arbitrary.” Predictable results mean that people who act in the same way can expect the law to treat them in the same way. If similar actions do not produce similar legal outcomes, people cannot use the law to guide their actions, and a “rule of law” does not exist.

  3. Linda, I sure hope you are not seeking a law license, for such eighteenth century sentiments could result in your denial in some jurisdictions minting attorneys for our tolerant and inclusive profession.

  4. Mazel Tov to the newlyweds. And to those bakers, photographers, printers, clerks, judges and others who will lose careers and social standing for not saluting the New World (Dis)Order, we can all direct our Two Minutes of Hate as Big Brother asks of us. Progress! Onward!

  5. My daughter was taken from my home at the end of June/2014. I said I would sign the safety plan but my husband would not. My husband said he would leave the house so my daughter could stay with me but the case worker said no her mind is made up she is taking my daughter. My daughter went to a friends and then the friend filed a restraining order which she was told by dcs if she did not then they would take my daughter away from her. The restraining order was not in effect until we were to go to court. Eventually it was dropped but for 2 months DCS refused to allow me to have any contact and was using the restraining order as the reason but it was not in effect. This was Dcs violating my rights. Please help me I don't have the money for an attorney. Can anyone take this case Pro Bono?

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