Teen’s attempted murder reversal splits COA in first-impression case

Is the parent of a juvenile defendant waived to adult court “essential” to the presentation of that juvenile’s defense? The majority of a split Indiana Court of Appeals panel concluded the answer to that question was yes, despite a dissenting judge’s opinion.

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. The man suffered two gunshots wounds to the leg and 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 juvenile court particularly noted that it was “in the best interest of the safety and welfare of the community” that Harris be tried as an adult.

During jury trial and before voir dire, 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 ultimately convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 37 years in the Department of Correction, but a split Indiana Court of Appeals reversed Wednesday.

Addressing an issue of first impression, the majority concluded that Harris’ mother was essential to presenting her son’s claim or defense under Indiana Evidence Rule 615(c).

“Once a juvenile is waived to adult court, Indiana Code Section 31-32-5-1 and its requirement for meaningful consultation no longer apply. Despite the waiver to adult court, however, the juvenile is still a minor child; the juvenile’s lack of maturity and need for meaningful consultation with a parent regarding the juvenile’s rights remain. Regardless of the waiver to adult court, our criminal procedures should take into account the juvenile’s youth and need for such meaningful consultation with a parent, especially during a trial,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote for the majority, joined by Judge Edward Najam.

“As such, we conclude that the parent of a juvenile waived to adult court is ‘a person whose presence a party shows to be essential to presenting the party’s claim or defense.’ Accordingly, the trial court erred by excluding Harris’ mother from Harris’ trial,” it concluded.

The appellate majority further found that error violated Harris’ due process right, noting that denying a teenager “any opportunity for meaningful consultation with a parent cannot readily be quantified.”

“We also note that, although the State listed Harris’ mother as a witness, she was never called to testify. Under these circumstances, we cannot say that the exclusion of Harris’ mother was harmless error,” the majority wrote, thus reversing and remanding for proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented from the majority and noted several problems with its conclusions.

First, Harris does not argue on appeal that his mother should have been allowed to stay in the courtroom because of Evidence Rule 615(c). Instead, he argues that he had a right to have his mother in the courtroom in spite of Evidence Rule 615. Therefore, the State had no reason to address — and did not address — Rule 615(c) in its brief. We should not reverse a judgment based on an issue that was not raised by the appellant, especially when the appellant’s silence leads to the appellee’s silence,” Vaidik wrote in her dissent.

“Second, Harris did not raise either the due-process issue or the Evidence Rule 615(c) issue in the trial court. In objecting to the separation-of-witnesses order, he did not mention ‘due process,’ the United States Constitution, or the Indiana Constitution, and he did not say anything about Rule 615(c) or argue that his mother’s presence was ‘essential.’ In fact, he never even said that he wanted his mother to be present. He said only that his mother ‘would like to be — to be in the trial as much as possible.’ By failing to raise either issue in the trial court, Harris waived both issues for purposes of appeal,” she continued.

Lastly, Vaidik disagreed with “the majority’s blanket conclusions that every waived juvenile has an absolute due process right to have a parent who is also a witness present throughout trial and that the presence of such a parent is per se ‘essential’ for purposes of Rule 615(c).”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.