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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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