COA cautions about sending fetal remains to jury deliberations

Arguments about whether aborted fetal remains from a child molesting case were improperly provided to a jury for consideration and stored in the jury room refrigerator during deliberations were settled by an appellate court Wednesday.

Randall Shields was convicted in Marion Superior Court of two counts of Level 1 felony child molesting and Level 6 felony strangulation after he strangled his then-13-year-old daughter, performed oral sex on her, forced her to reciprocate the act, had sex with her and got her pregnant.

The child later underwent an abortion and attempted to commit suicide days before Shields’ trial was set to start. During the trial, the trial court ordered an exhibit of the fetal to be placed in the court refrigerator’s freezer in the event that jurors wished to review the exhibit during deliberations. The jurors were instructed to “leave it in the freezer, handle it only with gloves, and then return it to the freezer immediately after they’ve examined it.”

Shields was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to an aggregate 53 years in prison, enhanced 15 years for his adjudication as a habitual offender.

In an appeal of his sentence, Shield argued the enhancement be reduced to a term closer to the minimum of six years. The Indiana Court of Appeals rejected his request, finding the sentence was not disproportionate in Randall L Shields v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-00271.

 Additionally, Shields argued that the fetal remains were entitled to dignity and that placing them in a jury room refrigerator could subject them to improper use by the jurors. He further argued that no objection was required, trial courts have an affirmative duty to maintain a fair trial, and even if an objection was required, a new trial was still warranted.

However, the appellate court found that any error in sending the fetal remains exhibit to the jury room during deliberations was invited by Shields. The panel noted that the exhibit was not presented in isolation to jury, but rather alongside all the exhibits, collectively.

“Considering the evidence as a whole and all information given to the jury, we are not persuaded that the jury was unduly prejudiced by the court’s decision to have State’s Exhibit No. 10 available in the jury room, and there is no indication the material was subjected to improper use by the jury,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote for the court. “Shields has not established that he was deprived of a fair trial or that a blatant violation of principles of due process occurred.

“While we cannot say that reversal is warranted in this case, we encourage trial courts to proceed with caution in deciding to send fetal remains or any biohazardous exhibit to the jury room during deliberations, to provide a proper and separate area or refrigerator for storing any such exhibits, and to carefully consider the factors set forth in (Thacker v. State, 709 N.E.2d 3, 7 (Ind. 1999)) before deciding whether to send the exhibit to the jury room,” the panel concluded.

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