Juror taint causes Supreme Court to reverse involuntary manslaughter convictions

The Indiana Supreme Court reversed a couple’s involuntary manslaughter convictions after it found an alternate juror improperly participated in the deliberations. The justices remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial.

Daniel and Saundra Wahl were each convicted of involuntary manslaughter following the death of a child at their in-home day care facility on June 20, 2013. However, before the trial court handed down their sentences, one of the jurors emailed the trial judge saying the alternate juror had taken over deliberations, leading discussions and playing a DVD over and over again. He also manipulated evidence according to the email.

The defendants filed a motion for a mistrial in light of the email, but it was denied, as was a motion to correct error after the trial was over. The Indiana Court of Appeals also upheld the decision, and the Supreme Court granted transfer to both cases, combining them into one decision.

Justice Brent Dickson wrote the opinion and cited Ramirez v. State, 7 N.E.3d 933, 936 (Ind. 2014) in the court’s decision. The defense argued Ramirez shouldn’t apply because in that case misconduct was committed during trial, and in the Wahl case, misconduct was committed during jury deliberations. But Dickson said Ramirez does apply whenever there is jury taint.

Dickson said the actions of the juror, which were outlined in a sworn affidavit, were more than enough to justify the reversal. The juror took over the deliberations, which directly affected the decision in the case.

Because the presumption of prejudice applied, Dickson said, it was up to the state to prove the prejudice was harmless, which it didn’t do. It only showed that the alternate juror’s participation with the jury was less after he was told he can’t participate, but not that it was harmless.

Justice Mark Massa dissented in part. He agreed with the reversal of the trial court’s denial of the Wahls’ motion for a mistrial, but disagreed there should be a new trial. He said the trial court has a duty to investigate jury taint by interviewing jurors when that is discovered, but didn’t say the state had to do it.

“Today’s decision – in a significant clarification of the burden of proof – extends Ramirez to impose that same duty on the state in a post-conviction setting. The state should thus be given the opportunity to meet that burden before the court makes a determination on the merits. I would therefore remand for additional hearing on the Wahls’ motion, so that every juror can actually inform the court as to the impact of the alternate juror’s misconduct on their respective impartiality.”

The combined case is Saundra S. Wahl v. State of Indiana, 29S04-1510-CR-605, and Daniel P. Wahl v. State of Indiana, 29S02-1510-CR-606.  

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