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Partially bifurcating trial prevented prejudice

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A defendant’s argument that he was prejudiced by a trial court’s decision to not fully bifurcate his murder trial failed in the Indiana Supreme Court.

Billy Russell appealed his conviction for murder and Class B felony possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon. He appealed, in part, on the grounds that the trial court abused its discretion by partially – instead of fully – bifurcating his trial.

The Supreme Court affirmed the partial bifurcation in Billy Russell v. State of Indiana, 49S04-1311-CR-741.

During Russell’s trial, the court split his prosecution into two phases. In the first phase, the jury had to determine whether Russell committed murder and whether he unlawfully possessed a firearm. In the second phase, the jury was charged with deciding whether Russell committed felony possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon and whether he was a habitual offender.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Indiana Court of Appeals that asking the jury to decide whether Russell knowingly possessed a firearm at the same time it was asked to decide whether he committed murder was not prejudicial. The Supreme Court did not find it was prejudicial to instruct the jury on the non-existent offense of “unlawful possession of a firearm” because the jury considered whether Russell had “unlawfully” possessed a firearm and whether he was a SVF in two separate phases of the trial.

 


 

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