Meth convictions upheld despite rewritten jury instructions

A trial court that rewrote the jury instructions offered by the Indiana Supreme Court proves everybody is an editor, but the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled the editing did not create an error that would overturn the defendant’s convictions.

Tanya Littleton appealed her convictions for dealing in methamphetamine, as a Level 3 felony, and maintaining a common nuisance, a Level 6 felony. She argued the Franklin Circuit Court erred as a matter of law when it refused to give her jury instructions regarding the presumption of innocence.

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in McCowan v. State, 27 N.E. 3d 760, 763 (Ind. 2015), that defendants may request the jury instructions include additional language about the trial. Specifically, McCowan states, “… the trial court must give this instruction if requested: ‘The presumption of innocence continues in favor of the defendant through the trial. You should fit the evidence to the presumption that the defendant is innocent if you can reasonably do so.’”

Littleton requested the preliminary and final jury instruction include the language on the presumption of innocence. She offered this wording: “This presumption of innocence continues in favor of the Defendant throughout each stage of the trial and you should fit the evidence presented to the presumption that the Defendant is innocent, if you can reasonably do so.”

The Franklin Circuit Court refused Littleton’s request and gave its own final jury instruction on the presumption of innocence. It told the jury, the defendant is presumed innocent then continued with “The Accused enters upon the trial with this presumption in his/her favor, and it goes with him/her through the trial, step by step, and it is your duty to weigh the evidence from the standpoint of the Accused’s innocence, if you can reasonably do so.”

Although the Court of Appeals noted the better practice would have been to stick to the Supreme Court’s wording, the trial court did not err as a matter of law when it instructed the jury.

“While the Court in McCowan designated a specific instruction to be given when requested, we do not believe the Court intended that trial courts only give that instruction verbatim,” Judge Edward Najam, Jr. wrote for the appellate panel. “Rather, we understand McCowan to require our trial courts to give a jury instruction that a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and also, if requested, an instruction that the presumption of innocence continues throughout the trial and that the jury should consider the evidence under the presumption of innocence.”

The case is Tanya A. Littleton v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-1159.

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