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Wahl v. State

Supreme Court of Indiana

March 15, 2016

SAUNDRA S. WAHL, Appellant (Defendant),
v.
STATE OF INDIANA, Appellee (Plaintiff)

          Appeal from the Hamilton Superior Court, No. 29D06-1309-FD-7824. The Honorable Gail Z. Bardach, Judge. On Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 29A04-1409-CR-418.

         Appeal from the Hamilton Superior Court, No. 29D06-1309-FD-7823. The Honorable Gail Z. Bardach, Judge. On Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 29A02-1409-CR-625.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: SAUNDRA S. AND DANIEL P. WAHL, Lawrence D. Newman, Newman & Newman, P.C., Noblesville, Indiana; Scott L. Barnhart, Diana B. Smith, Keffer Barnhart LLP, Indianapolis, Indiana.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE:STATE OF INDIANA, Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana; Michael G. Worden, Ian A.T. McLean, Deputy Attorneys General, Indianapolis, Indiana.

         Dickson, Justice. Rush, C.J., and Rucker and David, JJ., concur. Massa, J., concurs in part and dissents in part with separate opinion.

          OPINION

         Dickson, Justice.

         In light of the conduct of an alternate juror during jury deliberations, we reverse the defendants' convictions for Involuntary Manslaughter.[1]

         The defendants Daniel and Saundra Wahl, a married couple, were each convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter following the death of a child on June 20, 2013 at their in-home day care facility in Hamilton County. Before the defendants were sentenced, one of the jurors e-mailed the trial judge describing the conduct of an alternate juror during the jury's deliberations. Based on the e-mail, the defendants filed a motion for a mistrial, which the trial court denied. Following the defendants' sentencing, the defendants filed a motion to correct error again seeking a mistrial and supported by a sworn affidavit on the alternate juror's participation in deliberations. The affidavit alleged that " after the jury began deliberations, the alternate juror immediately began to involve himself in the deliberations and began taking over the deliberations by leading discussions." Appellant's App'x at 117. Even after being informed by other jurors not to participate in the deliberations, the alternate juror manipulated physical evidence (the working parts of a baby gate) and repeatedly replayed a portion of the DVD that was in evidence, with ever-increasing volume, until all jurors were giving it their attention. The trial court also denied the motion to correct error.

         The defendants appealed, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to sustain their convictions, that the trial court erred when it declined to grant a mistrial due to juror misconduct, that their sentences were inappropriate, and that the trial court erred in ordering restitution. The Court of Appeals affirmed in separate opinions. Wahl v. State, 36 N.E.3d 1147 (Ind.Ct.App. 2015); Wahl v. State, 36 N.E.3d 1163 (Ind.Ct.App. 2015). We granted transfer and now consolidate these cases. Finding that the defendants' motion for mistrial due to juror misconduct should have been granted, we reverse the convictions.[2]

         In Ramirez v. State, we emphasized that certain juror misconduct is presumed to prejudice a defendant because " [a]n impartial jury is the cornerstone of a fair trial, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and Article 1, Section 13 of our Indiana Constitution." 7 N.E.3d 933, 936 (Ind. 2014). In the present case, the resolution of the defendants' request for a mistrial based on a claim of juror misconduct is governed by the following standard:

Defendants seeking a mistrial for suspected jury taint are entitled to the presumption of prejudice only after making two showings, by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) extrajudicial contact or communications between jurors and unauthorized persons occurred, and (2) the contact or communications pertained to the matter before the jury. The burden then shifts to the State to rebut this presumption of prejudice by showing that any contact or communications were harmless.

Id. at 939 (internal citations omitted).[3] The defendants, however, argue that Ramirez does not apply here because the misconduct in Ramirez occurred during trial, while the misconduct in this case occurred during jury deliberations, not trial. But Ramirez is not limited only to in-trial juror misconduct. Rather, it applies whenever " [d]efendants seek[] a mistrial for suspected jury taint," regardless of when the alleged jury taint occurred. Id. Furthermore, several of the cases Ramirez examines involve alleged juror misconduct during deliberations. See, e.g., Henri v. Curto, 908 N.E.2d 196, 200-04 (Ind. 2009); Griffin v. State, 754 N.E.2d 899, 900-01 (Ind. 2001); Hall v. State, 796 N.E.2d 388, 396 (Ind.Ct.App. 2003), trans. denied.

         The State argues that the defendants have not carried their initial burden because the affidavit outlining the alternate juror's actions is " not permissible evidence for challenging the verdict" under Indiana Evidence Rule 606(b). Appellee's Br. at 15. Under that rule, " [d]uring an inquiry into the validity of a verdict . . . a juror may not testify about any statement made or incident that occurred during the jury's deliberations . . . ." Ind. R. Evid. 606(b)(1). But one of the rule's exceptions allows a juror to " testify about whether . . . an outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror . . . ." Id. at 606(b)(2). As this Court has held, " an alternate is an 'outside influence' for purposes of Indiana Evidence Rule 606(b)." Henri, 908 N.E.2d at 203 (citing Griffin, 754 N.E.2d at 903). We find the juror's affidavit admissible to challenge the verdict.

         The assertions in the affidavit are sufficient to trigger the Ramirez presumption. In addition to showing both extra-judicial contact and communications between jurors and the alternate juror, it also showed that " the contact or communications pertained to the matter before the jury." Ramirez, 7 N.E.3d at 939. As the State notes, " communications to the jury by an alternate juror during deliberations have been held to constitute extra-judicial communication." Appellee's Br. at 13 (citing Griffin, 754 N.E.2d at 903 (" An alternate is not, of course, a member of the jury . . . ." )). The trial court correctly instructed the jury that " [t]he alternate juror will be with you in the jury room but is not permitted to participate in your deliberations or verdicts." Appellant's App'x at 66. Here, the alternate juror " immediately began to involve himself in the deliberations" including the manipulation of physical evidence and a DVD. Appellant's App'x. at 117. As the trial court noted, the " contact between the jurors and an unauthorized person (the alternate) . . . . did pertain to the matter before the jury . . . ." Id. at 86. The ...


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