In a divided opinion, the Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court’s denial of motion for mistrial, holding that the court went too far in physically preventing a defendant from speaking.
Kenneth Vaughn was charged with Class D felony robbery and other charges for allegedly robbing a bank in Merrillville. During a three-day trial in 2008, court records show that Vaughn repeatedly presented then withdrew requests to represent himself. On the final day of trial, Vaughn took the stand, and rather than answer his attorney’s open-ended question about events on the day of the robbery, Vaughn instead began criticizing his attorney.
Lake Superior Judge Thomas Stefaniak, Jr. interrupted at least four times, instructing Vaughn to stop talking. Vaughn continued talking about his attorney, and the judge ordered the jury to be removed from the courtroom. While the jury was still present, the bailiff put his hand over Vaughn’s mouth and handcuffed him.
With the jury out of the courtroom, the judge spoke to Vaughn, expressing his frustration that Vaughn had been “flimflamming back and forth” about whether to represent himself and saying that he believed Vaughn may have been trying to cause a mistrial all along. After that conversation, the bailiff removed Vaughn’s handcuffs, and the jury and all parties returned to the courtroom. Vaughn then answered his attorney’s questions without incident.
The jury found Vaughn guilty of Class C felony robbery and Class D felony resisting law enforcement, and the court sentenced him to six years on the first count and two years on the second, to be served consecutively.
In Kenneth Dwayne Vaughn v. State of Indiana, No.45A05-1102-CR-57, Kenneth Vaughn appealed the trial court’s dismissal of his motion for mistrial. The appeals court wrote that in order to grant a mistrial, the defendant must prove that he was placed in “grave peril” – the gravity of which is measured by its persuasive effect on the jury.
Citing Wrinkles v. State, 749 N.E. 2d 1179, 1193 (Ind. 2001), the COA held that a defendant should be handcuffed only when he presents a danger to those in the courtroom, to prevent his escape, or to maintain order during trial, because the use of restraints could cause jurors to assume a defendant is guilty.
In Vaughn, the appeals court held that the trial court overreacted to Vaughn’s disruptive comments and that despite his continuous waffling about whether to proceed pro se, he had not previously disrupted proceedings.
The COA majority wrote: “We realize that it sometimes takes superhuman effort to restrain the natural frustration of dealing with difficult people at challenging times. We also recognize that this action is totally out of character for this seasoned and fine trial court judge.” Muzzling and restraining Vaughn, the appeals court held, deprived him of a fair trial before an untainted and impartial jury. It reversed and remanded for a new trial.
Judge Ezra Friedlander dissented, stating that he believed the trial court’s actions in silencing Vaughn were appropriate. Both the trial court and the defense, Friedlander wrote, were concerned that Vaughn was about to make statements on the stand that might cause a mistrial, and no one could predict whether Vaughn would have continued to disregard the judge’s orders to be quiet. Judge Friedlander also wrote that the jury would likely understand the reason for the restraints and would not assume that Vaughn was a dangerous person.
“Whether purposeful or not, he should not be permitted to gain from his willful disregard of the trial court’s commands,” Judge Friedlander wrote. “I would affirm the trial court in all respects.”