Justices: Juvenile convicted of attempted murder failed to show parent ‘essential’

When juvenile defendants are tried in adult court, parents who are also witnesses may be excluded from witness-separation orders if their children establish them as “essential” to the presentation of evidence, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled. However, applying that holding to the facts of the case before them, justices concluded an Elkhart County teen failed to establish his mom was “essential” to his attempted murder defense.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush handed down those rulings for a unanimous court in Byron D. Harris, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 20S-CR-546.

The case began with a June 2018 altercation between Byron Harris Jr., then in eighth grade, and Trestepfone Pryor. Harris accused Pryor of robbing him and the next day shot Pryor twice in the leg.

The case against Harris was waived to adult court, where Harris was charged with attempted murder. Harris’ mother was listed as a potential witness and the state sought a separation of witnesses order, but Harris objected, requesting that “separation of witnesses should be taken up after voir dire” to allow his mother “to be in the trial as much as possible.” Harris, who was then 16 years old, had a history of learning disabilities and mental health problems.

The Elkhart Circuit Court overruled Harris’ objection and ordered his mother to leave the courtroom, though the state ultimately did not call her to testify. Harris was found guilty and sentenced to 37 years in the Department of Correction, with five years suspended to probation.

The teen appealed and a split panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, finding his due process rights were violated when his mother was excluded from the courtroom. But Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented, writing separately that there was no due process right of children to have a parent present in criminal court.

The case was argued before the high court in November, and the justices affirmed the trial court on Wednesday.

Of the three exceptions to witness separation in Evidence Rule 615, the justices focused on the third: “a person whose presence a party shows to be essential to presenting the party’s claim or defense.” Rush pointed to the court’s holding in Hernandez v. State, 716 N.E.2d 948 (Ind. 1999), a ruling out of the Northern District of New York in Bruneau v. S. Kortright Cent. Sch. 962 F. Supp. 301, 305 (N.D.N.Y. 1997), and the decision from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Gov’t of Virgin Islands v. Edinborough, 625 F.2d 472, 475 (3d Cir. 1980), each of which dealt with a witness’ ability to assist in the presentation of a case.

“Guided by the reasoning underlying these decisions, we conclude that parents of children tried in adult criminal court — children like Harris — can also satisfy the ‘essential’ witness exception,” Rush wrote for the court. “Parents may possess ‘intimate knowledge’ of critical aspects of the child’s case or may be the only ones able to help the defendant deal with any anxiety and fully participate in the trial. In those cases, the juvenile defendant could show a parent possesses the ‘unique ability’ to assist the defense — thus, rendering them ‘essential’ under Rule 615(c).

“Though we hold that Rule 615(c) is the proper vehicle to permit a parent-witness to remain in the courtroom despite a separation-of-witnesses order, the exception is not automatic,” Rush continued, citing R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co. v. N. Tex. Steel Co., 752 N.E.2d 112 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), trans. denied. “Child defendants must still affirmatively show their parent’s presence is ‘essential.’”

Harris failed to make that showing, the court held.

Though he argued his mother wanted to be present “as much as possible,” he did not claim she could contribute to his defense. What’s more, Harris never mentioned that he himself wanted his mother present and only raised the argument that she was “essential” in his response brief on transfer. Thus, he waived the issue for appeal.

Harris also waived his argument that his right to have his mother present at trial was “rooted in due process and overrides a separation order.” That issue was not adequately argued, the justices held.

“He never said there was a constitutional right to have a parent present. Rather, as discussed above, Harris simply mentioned he was sixteen; he was being tried for a serious felony; and his mother wanted to be present. This brief explanation did not put the court or the State on notice that he was making a due process argument,” Rush wrote, declining to address “this complex due process question.”

Finally, the justices rejected Harris’ sentencing challenges, including claims that he should have been sentenced under the alternative juvenile sentencing scheme and that his sentence was inappropriate.

“Here, Harris was sentenced to thirty-seven years in the Department of Correction with five years sentenced to probation. We acknowledge this exceeds the advisory sentence by seven years,” Rush wrote. “… Yet, after examining the facts of this case, as well as his previous juvenile adjudications and the juvenile court’s finding that he was beyond rehabilitation, we decline to revise Harris’s sentence.”

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