Murder convictions upheld after dismissed juror feared for safety

A Lake County woman’s murder convictions were upheld Thursday in a case where a juror was dismissed after telling fellow jurors and the court he feared for his safety. The ruling also created split opinions in the Indiana Court of Appeals on the rights of defendants to speak.

Jeri Latoya Woods was convicted in two counts of murder and two counts of Level 5 felony kidnapping for the 2015 shooting deaths of 18-year-old Aareon Lackey and his brother, Antonio, 16. Woods and several accomplices believed the teens had stolen and sold several guns, and Woods also believed they shot another person she treated like a son. Woods and the accomplices picked the teens up from a hotel, took them to a remote area, where Woods shot them in the head, according to the record. The teens’ bodies were not discovered for weeks.

Woods was charged in September 2015 and federal agents arrested her in Texas in February 2016. After she testified at trial, a jury convicted her as charged. Woods argued in her appeal that the Lake Superior Court erred by denying her motion for a mistrial after a juror told fellow jurors and the court that he feared for his safety because he lived in the same neighborhood as Woods’ accomplices, some of whom he said watched him from outside the courthouse during the trial.

“We cannot conclude the trial court erred in denying Woods’ motion for a mistrial,” Senior Judge John Sharpnack wrote for the panel in Jeri Latoya Woods v. State of Indiana, 45A05-1707-CR-1744. “The extreme remedy of a mistrial was unnecessary here,” the panel held.

The state rebutted the presumption of a tainted jury because the court questioned each juror, who uniformly said they could remain impartial despite the dismissed juror’s concern for his safety. The court also admonished the jury to give no weight to the dismissed juror’s concern and to inform the court if a juror felt at any point he or she could no longer be impartial.

On another of Jones’ appellate arguments, the panel refused to apply a divided recent Court of Appeals ruling that held a defendant must be directly asked whether she wishes to address the court, instead of the question being asked of counsel. In Jones v. State, 79 N.E.3d 911 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), the majority of an appellate panel remanded Ivan Jones’ sentence of five years in prison, including a three-year habitual offender enhancement, for his conviction of Level 5 felony battery. Jones had been accused of stabbing a man during a confrontation, and he was found guilty after a bench trial in Marion Superior Court. Jones’ counsel had been asked whether his client wished to speak, but Jones had not been asked directly.

Similarly, Woods’ counsel also declined an opportunity to speak, but the appeals court in her case sided with the dissent of COA Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik in Jones.

“We respectfully disagree with the majority’s holding in Jones and decline to follow it,” Sharpnack wrote. “The trial court offered an opportunity to give a statement, and we conclude from these facts that Woods chose not to speak. Following our Supreme Court’s precedent, we conclude Woods has failed to carry her heavy burden of proving the trial court erroneously deprived her of her right of allocution.”

The court also rejected Woods’ claims of alleged bias and fundamental error from the court during her testimony in which she insulted witnesses, repeatedly violated hearsay rules and “was an obstreperous witness,” according to the appellate court. The panel also noted the trial court had threatened off the record to hold Woods in contempt if she continued her abusive testimony.

“We cannot conclude the court’s attempts to maintain an orderly trial demonstrated bias or fundamental error,” Sharpnack wrote.


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