Friday, March 6, 2015

Determining Jury Instructions

In 1998 the defendant, Cedrick Shuler, 36, shot and killed Renee LaShawn Best, 26, in Southeast Washington as he fired at a man he believed killed one of his friends. The trial court used two theories of mens rea to instruct the jury on first-degree murder while armed: first, Mr. Shuler intended to kill Ms. Best, or second, Mr. Shuler’s intention to kill transferred to Ms. Best under the transferred intent doctrine.

 The jury, while in deliberations, submitted numerous questions regarding the charge and the application of the law. After the trial court made every effort to clarify all confusion around the appropriate understanding of the law, it issued a second-degree murder jury instruction. However, it emphasized that the jury must determine Mr. Shuler’s liability under the first-degree murder instruction before considering second-degree liability. Defense counsel objected stating that it had not prepared a theory of second degree and that timing unduly prejudiced Mr. Shuler. The trial court rejected these objections, and the jury convicted Mr. Shuler of second-degree murder. Mr. Shuler appealed.

As an issue of First Impression, the court applied the analysis used in United States v. Welbeck, a second-circuit case, to determine whether the trial court in Mr. Shuler’s case abused its discretion. The court emphasized the danger in giving instructions during deliberations because it could create unfair prejudice and often leads to reversible error. The Welbeck Court identified two potential problems that would create unfair prejudice: first, the timing of the charge may make it unfairly suggestive on the court’s part, and second, the exposure to alternative liability harms the defendant.

In Shuler, the trial court, first, did not suggest a second-degree murder liability when it addressed and re-instructed a stalled jury because the court answered only the questions the jury asked, and did not imply second-degree murder as an alternative to breaking the jury’s hung deliberation. Second, the trial court did not deprive the defendant of the opportunity to effectively address the lesser offense because the defendant’s theory was that he was never present during the crime and therefore not guilty. Such a defense would rebut the elements of murder in both the first or second degree, thus the defendant was not prejudiced by the court’s second-degree jury instruction.

Expanding the judge’s discretion to add lesser-included jury instructions at the jury’s request is a new dynamic in the courtroom. As long as a judge addresses the jury's concerns in a timely manner and does not prejudice the defendant’s opportunity to argue the latter instruction, alternative instructions are possible. Factors that could trigger additional jury instructions are unclear; however, as Shuler illustrates, aged eyewitness testimonies can cause juries to be confused and stalled, leading to jury questions that may result in additional jury instructions. Thus, rather than an all or nothing strategy, future attorneys should determine the likelihood that juries will ask the court for an alternative jury instruction, then create a litigation strategy that can hedge against such instruction.

Robert Martinez
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by Michael Galkovsky via Flickr

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