Justices order new drunken driving trial after possible juror bias

A woman convicted on a drunken driving charge will get a new trial after the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously threw out her conviction on Friday. The justices remanded the Marion County case because the trial court did not hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant could have challenged a selected juror who later admitted that a family member had been killed by a drunken driver.

Justice Christopher Goff wrote for the high court in Tracie Easler v. State of Indiana, 19S-CR-324, overturning decisions by both the Marion Superior Court and the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The defendant in the case, Tracie Easler, was charged with two counts of operating a vehicle while intoxicated after she was found unconscious behind the wheel of her SUV. Among the selected jurors was Juror 4, who during voir dire was only asked questions about signs of intoxication and reasonable doubt.

Before being sworn in, Juror 4 submitted a note telling the court that “a family member was killed by a drunk driver. It was before I was born, but altered my family dynamic irreparably. I can be a jury member, but thought it is relevant to disclose.” Though defense counsel asked if Juror 4 could be submitted to further questioning, the trial judge said, “I just thought I’d share that with you, okay. But I don’t think there’s anything else we can do.”

Defense counsel then raised a for-cause challenge to Juror 4, arguing she had not been completely forthcoming on her juror questionnaire. But the trial court rejected the challenge and swore in the jury, and Easler was found guilty on both counts.

The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld Easler’s convictions, finding in February that “neither ‘the incompleteness of Juror 4’s questionnaire’ nor the note Juror 4 provided to the court ‘present[ed] specific, substantial evidence establishing Juror 4’s bias’ that would entitle Easler to a hearing.” But the Supreme Court granted transfer and disagreed with both lower courts.

In the unanimous opinion, Goff said Easler’s case implicates the “foundational principles” of the right to a fair trial before an impartial jury. “Specifically,” he said, “this case raises the following question: What is the minimum amount of new information — in terms of quality and quantity — that would require a court to hold a hearing to investigate the alleged bias or misconduct?”

In answering that question, the court looked to four cases: Barnes v. State, Stevens v. State, Stevens II and Lopez v. State. The justices agreed with Easler that Lopez does not apply here because its “specific, substantial evidence” requirement was meant to prevent harassment of jurors post-trial.

“Instead, when a party requests a hearing on possible juror bias or misconduct after the jury has been selected but before it is sworn in, a trial court should hold such a hearing if the party provides some relevant basis, arising outside the normal course of voir dire, that indicates a juror is possibly biased or possibly committed misconduct,” Goff wrote. “Such a hearing should comply with the requirements laid out in Barnes and Stevens I & II.

“… This standard — set lower than that in Lopez — recognizes the paramount importance of impartial juries and the relative ease with which trial courts can correct potential improprieties before the jury is sworn in,” he continued. “… Thus, to repeat the applicable rule here, if a party requests a hearing on juror bias or misconduct after the jury is selected but before it is sworn in and the party provides some relevant basis, arising outside the normal course of voir dire, that indicates a juror is possibly biased or possibly committed misconduct, a trial court should hold a hearing to determine if the juror is biased or committed misconduct.”

Here, the trial court abused its discretion in not holding such a hearing on Juror 4 at defense counsel’s request, the court concluded. Though the justices said in a footnote that they do not believe Juror 4 committed misconduct, her note “shows a relevant basis indicating possible bias.”

As for a remedy, the state advocated for a remand only for an evidentiary hearing. But the justices agreed with Easler that a new trial is necessary.

“Whether Juror 4 was biased during Easler’s trial involves a subjective assessment that would be difficult to make outside the context and timing of the voir dire setting,” Goff wrote. “This difficulty is compounded by the passage of time since Juror 4’s potential bias should have been examined.

“And allowing such an examination to take place now would open the door to potential post-trial juror harassment,” he continued. “Based on these reasons, a new trial is the proper remedy in this case.”

In a footnote, the court said it did not need to address the denial of Easler’s for-cause challenge to Juror 4 given the remand for a new trial.

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