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Easler v. State

Supreme Court of Indiana

September 20, 2019

Tracie Easler, Appellant (Defendant),
State of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff).

          Argued: June 18, 2019

          Appeal from the Marion Superior Court, No. 49G10-1707-CM-25008 The Honorable Peggy Ryan Hart, Pro Tempore

         On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 18A-CR-1371

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT Talisha Griffin Valerie K. Boots Marion County Public Defender Agency Indianapolis, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Ian McLean Caryn N. Szyper Deputy Attorneys General Indianapolis, Indiana


          Goff Justice

         Deciding issues of great importance under time constraints is but one burden borne by our trial courts. However, every case is important to the parties involved and adequate time must be allocated to fairly resolve any meritorious issues presented. In this case involving charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated, a juror-after being selected to serve on the jury but before being sworn-submitted a note informing the trial court that one of her family members had been killed by a drunk driver. Defense counsel requested an opportunity to explore the juror's potential bias, but the trial court did not allow further questioning. We conclude that the information conveyed by the juror to the trial court before the jury was sworn should have resulted in a hearing to determine whether the defendant could have properly challenged the juror's service for cause. The trial court's refusal to conduct a hearing was an abuse of discretion. Further, given the subjective nature of the information conveyed and concerns about the passage of time and potential juror harassment, we cannot say that remand for a hearing will ensure the fairness of the proceedings below. Accordingly, we reverse and remand these proceedings for a new trial.

         Factual and Procedural History

         Based on an incident where emergency personnel found her unconscious behind the wheel of her SUV, the State charged Defendant Tracie Easler with two counts of operating a vehicle while intoxicated, and the case proceeded to a jury trial.

         After assembling the prospective jurors, the trial court introduced the parties and explained the voir dire process, saying "the objective of the attorneys here today is to obtain a fair and impartial jury." Tr. Vol. II, pp. 12–13. See also id. at 12 ("Jurors must be free as humanly possible from bias, prejudice, sympathy, and must not be influenced by pre-conceived ideas as to either what the facts are, or what the law is."). At this point, the court asked all the potential jurors to stand and promise to answer any questions honestly during jury selection. The State and defense counsel then conducted their voir dire examinations of the potential jurors. After the dust settled, the trial court announced the six-person jury, which included M.M. ("Juror 4"). Up until this time, Juror 4 had spoken only two times, answering direct questions from counsel about signs of intoxication and reasonable doubt. But when she was announced as a member of the jury, Juror 4 interjected, "Are those-they're not going to ask us any more questions that are relevant?" Supp. Tr. Vol. II, p. 29. The court informed her that questioning was over, and the bailiff escorted the six newly selected jurors from the room.

         Another set of potential jurors was seated for the court and the parties to examine and select an alternate juror. Before the court announced who had been selected, it asked counsel to approach and disclosed a note that Juror 4 had given to the bailiff. The note read, "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." Appellant's App. Vol. II, p. 127. Defense counsel asked if Juror 4 could be brought out and questioned over whether she could be a fair and impartial juror. Supp. Tr. Vol. II, p. 35. Instead of responding to defense counsel, the court said, "I just thought I'd share that with you, okay. But I don't think there's anything else we can do." Id. at 36. Defense counsel did not otherwise immediately respond to the court's dismissal of Juror 4's note. The court then announced the alternate juror, had her join the other people selected as jurors, and dismissed the remaining potential jurors.

         Once all the jurors and potential jurors had left the courtroom, the court returned to Juror 4's note to clarify the record. After the court summarized the note and the disclosure of the note, defense counsel challenged Juror 4 for cause, arguing that Juror 4 had not been forthcoming on her juror questionnaire when "she said that her grandmother was the victim of murder, but . . . did not disclose anything else." Id. at 37. The State disagreed, arguing that Juror 4 had been forthcoming. The State said that on Juror 4's questionnaire, she had explained her sympathy for victims of violent crimes as the result of seeing the effect of those crimes on families. The State also summarized Juror 4's note as saying that she could still be a fair and impartial juror, and it noted that she had voluntarily made the parties aware of her past. The court denied the motion to remove the juror. The entire jury was then sworn in as jurors, and it found Easler guilty on both counts.

         Easler appealed, claiming the trial court should have granted a hearing to discover Juror 4's possible bias and, separately, should have removed Juror 4 for cause. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. Easler v. State, 118 N.E.3d 84, 92 (Ind.Ct.App. 2019). It rejected Easler's hearing-request argument because 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. Id. at 90 (relying primarily on Lopez v. State, 527 N.E.2d 1119, 1130 (Ind. 1988)). The court explained that "Juror 4 completed the questionnaire to the best of her ability." Id. Juror 4 took steps to divulge the information as soon as she could, and "coupled with the affirmation that she could remain on the jury despite her background, [she] resolved the need for any questioning." Id. The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court correctly declined to remove Juror 4 for cause because either party could have asked related questions during voir dire, and Juror 4 shared her information as soon as possible. Id. at 91–92.

         We granted Easler's petition to transfer, thereby vacating the Court of Appeals ...

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