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Justices: Jury issues don't require new trial

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The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a jury award in favor of a man accused of rape in a civil suit, ruling the jury didn't receive improper communications and the trial court didn't err in providing impasse assistance to the jury. The high court also explained how to harmonize several Indiana Trial Rules regarding whether an appellate claim of insufficient evidence may be raised for the first time on appeal.

In Susana Henri v. Stephen Curto, No. 49S02-0812-CV-641, Susana Henri appealed the jury verdict that denied her civil damages for rape and awarded Stephen Curto $45,000 on his counterclaim for tortious interference with his contract with Butler University. The two were students at the university, had too much to drink and had sex. Henri claimed it wasn't consensual and filed her civil suit against Curto.

A juror contacted Henri several days after the trial and executed an affidavit alleging various things, including issues during deliberation and an alternate juror influencing the jurors. This led to Henri's motion to correct error, which was denied by the trial court.

On appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial because of errors during the jury's deliberations.

But the Supreme Court didn't think there were any errors in the jury deliberations or actions of the jurors to warrant a new trial. Henri argued on appeal the jury received improper external communications and the trial court didn't properly assist them at an impasse.

The jurors received the final instructions in writing and orally that said their verdict must be unanimous, so the trial court's response through the bailiff to a jury question regarding the necessity of a unanimous verdict didn't introduce any new information nor was it prejudicial to Henri, wrote Justice Brent Dickson. Because of those instructions, the bailiff's alleged answer to the jury question that the jury had to keep deliberating until a unanimous verdict was reached wasn't coercive or result in an unfair trial, wrote the justice.

Even though a juror used her cell phone during deliberations after receiving a call and speaking to the bailiff, reversal and a new trial aren't warranted on this issue. The high court did caution trial courts on this issue, suggesting the best practice is to discourage, restrict, prohibit, or prevent access to mobile electronic communication devices during trial proceedings and deliberations.

In addition the alternate juror's noises, gestures, pacing, and exercising may be annoying, but it didn't constitute misconduct that rendered an unfair trial, wrote Justice Dickson.

The Supreme Court also rejected Henri's contention the trial court committed reversible error by failing to respond as required by Indiana Code Section 34-36-1-6 to a juror's assertion of a jury deadlock and her request to be excused from the jury after 20 minutes of deliberating. The juror's declarations don't reveal an error or omission in the final instructions sufficient to trigger the statute's requirement of mandatory action by the trial court, wrote the justice. Also, the juror wasn't the jury foreperson and her private statement to the bailiff wasn't presented on behalf of the whole jury.

The dispute over the sufficiency of the evidence to support Curto's counterclaim led the high court to consider whether an appellate claim of insufficient evidence may be raised for the first time on appeal. In order to harmonize the rules of Trial Rule 59(A) with Rules 50(A)(4) and 59(J), the justices held that such a claim is appropriately preserved during trial if it is properly asserted in a motion for judgment on the evidence filed either before the case is submitted to the jury, after submission and before a verdict is entered, or in a motion to correct error.

"We intend the phrase 'during trial' to require that a claim of insufficient evidence must be preserved by proper presentation to the trial court. Such a challenge may not be initially raised on appeal in civil cases if not previously pre-served in the trial court by either a motion for judgment on the evidence filed before judgment or in a motion to correct error," wrote Justice Dickson.

Henri failed to challenge the sufficiency of evidence supporting the verdict in favor of Curto during trial by a Trial Rule 50 motion for judgment on the evidence, or by the post-trial Rule 59 motion to correct error. As such, the issue is procedurally defaulted.

The high court also denied awarding appellate attorney fees to Curto.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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