State high court arguments focus on parental presence at teen’s trial

The Indiana Supreme Court heard what one justice called an “interesting argument” in a case of first impression Thursday morning, considering whether a juvenile’s mother’s presence was essential to his defense when he was tried as an adult.

In Byron D. Harris, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-1863, Byron Harris was 15 when he was accused of shooting a man he thought had robbed him. Harris was later charged with committing acts that would be Level 1 felony attempted murder and Level 3 felony aggravated battery if committed by an adult.

Juvenile jurisdiction over Harris’ case was waived to the Elkhart Circuit Court based on the teen’s history with the juvenile justice system and other pending charges against him.

The state requested a separation of witnesses order, which included Harris’ mother, Twanna Warren. But despite Harris’ objection that Warren wanted to be present at the trial as much as possible because Harris was a juvenile, the trial court overruled and never called her to testify during trial.

Harris was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 37 years in the Department of Correction, but a divided Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. The majority concluded that Harris’ due process rights were violated when the court excluded his mother from the courtroom during the trial.

Representing Harris, Elkhart attorney Elizabeth A. Bellin argued that a waiver of a child to adult court does not change the child’s age or his ability to understand the proceedings against him.

“Nor should it change the requirement or an ability to have a parent present during each stage of the proceedings when liberty interests are at stake,” Bellin told the justices during the oral arguments.

Asserting that the COA majority decision was correct, Bellin argued that the case of first impression raises two questions. First, whether Indiana Evidence Rule 615 provides the parental exception is essential. Second, whether due process requires that a parent be present in a proceeding so important as a trial for attempted murder.

“My concern is that we’re kind of in the middle of a river on two banks. On one side of the river is the juvenile justice system and on the other side of the river is the adult criminal justice system. And maybe the statute didn’t contemplate this exact situation, but it appears to me that this case was well tried at the trial level and there is a lack of a record to support an abuse of discretion review,” Justice Steven David said.

The justice also expressed concern as to whether Harris was advocating for a strict bright line rule that in any case in which a juvenile is waived to the adult court, the parents have a right to be present even if they’re a witness for the defense.

Stating that she is not advocating for a bright line rule, Harris’ counsel went on to answer Justice Geoffrey Slaughter’s question that she is advocating for Harris’ due process right to a fair trial. Slaughter asked Bellin why the question of Harris’ mother’s presence had been waived in the trial court.

Number one, due process issues can always be reviewed de novo by this court. And number two, there was enough of an objection at trial to indicate that the child wanted his mother there and there was at least enough of an exchange so that a valid objection could be, while not perfect, I most certainly would concede to that, Justice Slaughter, there’s nothing there to get past a waiver issue,” Bellin said.

Arguing for the state, Deputy Attorney General Samuel Dayton argued that the justices should affirm Harris’ conviction and sentence, asserting that his case is a  “textbook example for why the waiver doctrine exists, and why parties are required to raise claims in the trial court before raising them on appeal.”

When asked by Justice Mark Massa whether the due process argument was waived in the trial court and if it was, the high court could in any way reach as Harris’ counsel asserted, the state responded in the negative.

There’s just simply no record to address that claim, because the right would not be absolute and we can’t really intelligently review this record for what the reasonable limitations would be. But you’re absolutely right to point that concern. And it is absolutely why this court should decline to address the merits of the constitutional claims,” Dayton said.

“Are you suggesting that a defendant waives all juvenile rights following transfer to criminal court? Should a juvenile defendant be treated as an adult in adult court without exception?” another justice asked.

“I don’t think that anybody is suggesting one way or the other here that a juvenile’s waived all rights. There’s case law that talks about the special interests that juveniles have … in criminal court, but as far as procedures and protections that are statutory in nature, in the juvenile proceedings, those don’t automatically extend beyond the statutory bounds,” Dayton argued.

“If the court is going to opine on the merits of the case, we do believe that the appropriate resolution of the case would rest on rule 615c. There is no due process right that has ever been found. And even if one existed it would not be an absolute right and that was the problem with the Court of Appeals’ opinion and why this case should be decided on waiver.”

Arguments in the case can be watched online here.

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