Monthly Archives: January 2015

Attorney Alexander Ransom Accepted Into National College of DUI Defense

Good news.

Attorney Alexander Ransom became a General Member of the National College for DUI Defense, Inc.

The National College for DUI Defense (NCDD) is a professional, non-profit corporation dedicated to the improvement of the criminal defense bar, and to the dissemination of information to the public about DUI Defense Law as a specialty area of law practice. The National College is headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama.It consists of a governing Board of Regents, a Founding Membership, a Sustaining Membership and a General Membership.

College members represent the most experienced DUI defense attorneys in the country. Members are among the top DUI practitioners in the United States. The NCDD recognizes defense lawyers who have demonstrated the skill and experience of the original Founding Members, as well as the generosity to financially sustain the growth of the NCDD. General Members are the backbone of the college—capable, experienced attorneys who dedicate a portion of their practice to the defense of DUI cases throughout the country.

Mr. Ransom is honored and privileged to become a member of this proud organization.

You can view his NCDD Profile here.

State v. Walker: WA Supreme Court Decides Prosecutor’s Powerpoint Presentation Violates Defendant’s Right to Fair Trial

EXCELLENT opinion. In State v. Walker, the Washington Supreme Court decided the Prosecutor improperly used a PowerPoint presentation during closing argument to convey egrigious misstatements which violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

At his jury trial, defendant Odies Delandus Walker was convicted as an accomplice to Murder in the First Degree, Assault in the First Degree, Robbery in the First Degree Solicitation and Conspiracy. The WA Supreme Court addressed the issue as whether those convictions must be reversed in light of the Power Point presentation the prosecuting attorney used during closing argument.

The Prosecutor’s presentation repeatedly expressed the prosecutor’s personal opinion on guilt-over 100 of its approximately 250 slides were headed with the words “DEFENDANT WALKER GUILTY OF PREMEDITATED MURDER,” and one slide showed Walker’s booking photograph altered with the words “GUILTY BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT,” which were superimposed over his face in bold red letters. The prosecutor also appealed to passion and prejudice by juxtaposing photographs of the victim with photographs of Walker and his family, some altered with the addition of inflammatory captions and superimposed text (please click the above link to the Walker opinion for a look at the specific Powerpoint slides and images).

In reaching its decision, the court reasoned that while the prosecutor is entitled to draw the jury’s attention to admitted evidence, those slides, as presented, served no legitimate purpose. Their prejudicial effect could not have been cured by a timely objection, and we cannot conclude with any confidence that Walker’s convictions were the result of a fair trial. Consistent with both long-standing precedent and our recent holding in In re Personal Restraint of Glasmann, 175 Wn.2d 696, 286 P.3d 673 (2012), the court reversed Walker’s convictions and remanded for a new trial.

The Court also gave some powerful language regarding how the prosecution committed serious misconduct in the portions of the PowerPoint presentation discussed above:

“We have no difficulty in holding the prosecutor’s conduct in this case was improper. Closing argument provides an opportunity to draw the jury’s attention to the evidence presented, but it does not give a prosecutor the right to present altered version of admitted evidence to support the State’s theory of the case, to present derogatory depictions of the defendant, or to express personal opinions on the defendant’s guilt. Furthermore, RPC3.4(e) expressly prohibits a lawyer from vouching for any witness’s credibility or stating a personal opinion ‘on the guilt or innocence of the accused.’”

My opinion? Good decision. It’s very encouraging for trial attorneys to learn from these opinions. For example, we can argue Motions in Limine asking that the State’s PowerPoint presentations are disclosed in advance of closing arguments. The Walker opinion expressly endorses this approach.

Furthermore, this is the second opinion this month handed down by the WA Supremes regarding Prosecutorial Misconduct during closing arguments (please read my blog on State v. Allen). It appears the WA Supremes are on a roll.

Good opinion!

State v. Walker: Shackled Defendants

Interesting case on shackled defendants appearing at non-jury hearings . . .

In State v. Walker, the Court of Appeals decided a trial judge can decide whether and how a prisoner should be restrained by shackles in the courtroom.

Here, the defendant Vernon Walker pleaded guilty to one count of Murder in the Second Degree and one count of Assault in the Second Degree arising from a 2003 shooting. At his sentencing hearing, jail security officers transported him to court wearing handcuffs and leg restraints. The trial court denied Walker’s motion for an order removing the handcuffs for the hearing. On appeal, Walker argues that the denial of his motion violated his constitutional right to appear before the court free of physical restraint. He also argued for a new sentencing hearing.

On appeal, Walker argued he had a constitutional right to appear in court free from restraints, regardless of whether a jury was present, and that there was no factual basis to support his shackling. He contended that because he had no history of disrupting court proceedings or attempting to escape from the courtroom, there was no reason to believe that he would do so at his sentencing hearing. He argued that the State’s claims otherwise were speculation. Walker also asserted that restraints would dehumanize him and prejudice the sentencing judge.

 Despite Walker’s arguments, the Court of Appeals disagreed. They reasoned a trial judge has sole authority over whether and how a prisoner should be restrained in the courtroom. Furthermore, even though the law strictly forbids defendants from appearing before juries wearing shackles, a court may shackle a defendant at non-jury hearings on a “lesser showing” than is required to shackle a defendant during a jury proceeding. Finally, the court reasoned that restraints are permissible in non-jury hearings to prevent injury to people in the courtroom, disorderly conduct at trial, or escape.

My opinion? This is a tough case. It is well settled that in a proceeding before a jury a criminal defendant has a constitutional right to appear free from restraints or shackles of any kind. In State v. Williams, the defendant’s conviction for burglary was reversed because the trial court, without justification, denied the defendant’s motion that he and his witnesses be unmanacled before the jury during the trial. The Williams court cited article 1, section 22 of the Washington State Constitution which provides “In criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the right to appear and defend in person,” and stated:

The right here declared is to appear with the use of not only his mental but his physical faculties unfettered, and unless some impelling necessity demands the restraint of a prisoner to secure the safety of others and his own custody, the binding of the prisoner in irons is a plain violation of the constitutional guaranty.

Here, in the Walker case, the Court of Appeals distinguished its reasoning from Williams to the extent that Williams only applied to times when the defendant was before the jury. Otherwise, for non-jury hearings, judges have full authority to decide whether defendants must appear in restraints and shackles.

Attorney Alexander F. Ransom Makes “Top 100” List National Black Lawyers.

Good news.

Bellingham Criminal Defense attorney Alexander Ransom was selected for membership within the prestigious National Black Lawyers organization.

The National Black Lawyers- “Top 100” is an invitation-only professional honorary organization composed of the Top 100 Black Lawyers from each state who serve individuals, families and businesses needing attorneys to represent them in the American legal system. Members of The National Black Lawyers- Top 100 exemplify superior qualifications of leadership, reputation, influence and performance in their area of legal practice. This exclusive organization provides superior networking opportunities, continuing legal education and the highest quality advocacy training for lawyers across the nation. This organization is focused on highlighting & elevating the accomplished black attorney to provide the best way for the public & other attorneys to find theTop Black Attorneys for their legal needs & source for case referrals.

“I’m extremely pleased to practice criminal defense here in Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham,” says Alex. “What motivates me is my passion for justice and making sure my clients get a fair shake in the legal system. I’ll continue to fight hard for my clients. I wouldn’t be here without them.”

State v. Allen: Prosecutor Commits Misconduct With Phrase, “Should Have Known.”

In State v. Allen, the WA Supremes ruled that the Prosecuting Attorney committed prejudicial misconduct by misstating the standard upon which the jury may convict an accomplice.

This case involves the Lakewood police officer shootings.

The defendant Mr. Allen was friend and co-worker of Maurice Clemmons, who fatally shot four police officers in a coffee shop on November 29, 2009. Mr. Allen’s involvement transpired on the days leading up to the shooting.

This tragic story began in May 2009 when officers responded to reports that Clemmons was throwing rocks through his neighbors’ windows. Clemmons responded violently when officers arrived at the scene, and he was arrested for punching officers. He posted bail in November 2009, the month of the shootings.

Shortly after his release, Clemmons attended Thanksgiving dinner at his aunt’s house, where he expressed animosity toward the police. Specifically, he announced that if the police arrived to look for him, he would kill them and then go across the street to the elementary school and commit further acts of violence. Clemmons brandished a handgun while he described these acts. Allen, who was a friend and employee of Clemmons, was present at that dinner.

Three days later, Clemmons contacted Allen and told him they were going to wash the company truck. With Allen driving, Clemmons directed him to a car wash near a coffee shop in Lakewood. Upon arriving at the car wash, Allen parked the truck, got out, and walked across the street to a minimart. During that time, Clemmons also left the car wash and entered the coffee shop, where the shootings occurred. When Allen returned to the truck, Clemmons appeared and told Allen that they had to leave. Allen claimed he drove only a few blocks until he left the truck upon discovering Clemmons was wounded. Allen also claimed that he did not know Clemmons was going to commit the murders.

Clemmons eventually ended up at his aunt’s house, and the truck was abandoned in a nearby parking lot. A few days later, Clemmons was killed by a Seattle police officer. Allen was arrested shortly afterward.

Allen was charged with four counts of Aggravated Murder in the first Degree. During trial, several spectators wore T -shirts that said, “‘You will not be forgotten, Lakewood Police,”‘ followed by the names of the four murdered officers. Allen objected to these T-shirts and asked that the shirts be covered. The trial court denied Allen’s motion.

At closing argument, the State was required to prove that Allen had actual knowledge that Clemmons would commit the murders. During closing argument, the prosecuting attorney initially stated the correct definition of “knowledge” as it was used in the jury instruction. However, immediately afterward, the prosecuting attorney stated that “for shorthand we’re going to call that ‘should have known.'” Also, the prosecuting attorney went on to repeatedly and improperly use the phrase “should have known” when describing the definition of “knowledge.” The prosecuting attorney also presented a slide show simultaneously with his closing argument. This slide show repeatedly referred to the incorrect “should have known” standard. One slide even stated, “You are an accomplice if: … you know or should have known,” with the words “should have known” in bold. The prosecuting attorney made several more “should have known” comments in rebuttal argument.

The jury received instructions that correctly stated the law regarding “knowledge.” Particularly, instruction 9 said the following:

A person knows or acts knowingly or with knowledge with respect to a fact or circumstance when he or she is aware of that fact or circumstance. If a person has information that would lead a reasonable person in the same situation to believe that a fact exists, the jury is permitted but not required to find that he or she acted with knowledge of that fact.

 Allen was convicted of four counts of Murder in the First Degree. Based on the aggravating circumstance, the trial court imposed an exceptional sentence of 400 years.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

The Court granted review on three issues: (1) Did the prosecuting attorney commit prejudicial misconduct by misstating the standard upon which the jury could convict Allen? (2) Does the “aggravator” found in RCW 9.94A.535(3)(v) apply to a defendant charged as an accomplice? (3) Was Allen prejudiced when spectators at trial wore T -shirts bearing the names of the murdered officers?

1. DID THE PROSECUTOR COMMIT MISCONDUCT?

The court ruled the Prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct by misstating the standard upon which the jury could find Allen guilty. Here, the prosecuting attorney repeatedly misstated that the jury could convict Allen if it found that he should have known Clemmons was going to murder the four police officers.

The Court reasoned that, for example, the prosecuting attorney stated that “under the law, even if he doesn’t actually know, if a reasonable person would have known, he’s guilty.” As noted above, the “should have known” standard is incorrect; the jury must find that Allen actually knew Clemmons was going to murder the four police officers. Consequently, the Court concluded that the remarks were improper.

Furthermore, the improper comments prejudiced the defendant. First, the Prosecutor misstated a key issue of the case – knowledge. Second, the misstatement of law was repeated multiple times. Repetitive misconduct can have a “cumulative effect.” Third, the trial court twice overruled Allen’s timely objections in the jury’s presence, potentially leading the jury to believe that the “should have known” standard was a proper interpretation of law. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the record reveals that the jury was influenced by the improper statement of law during deliberations. Finally, the misconduct by the State was particularly egregious. Based on the foregoing factors, the Court found that there was a substantial likelihood that the Prosecutor’s misconduct affected the jury verdict and thus prejudiced Allen.

 2. DOES THE “AGGRAVATOR” SENTENCING ENHANCEMENT APPLY TO AN ACCOMPLICE?

The Court answered “Yes” to this question. Here, the court sentenced Allen to an exceptional sentence based on the sentencing aggravator found in RCW 9.94A.535(3)(v). That statute contains no express triggering language automatically authorizing an exceptional sentence for accomplices. Therefore, Allen’s own misconduct must form the basis upon which the exceptional sentence applies. The operative language of the statute here allows the court to sentence Allen above the standard range if the offense was committed against a law enforcement officer who was performing his or her official duties at the time of the offense, the offender knew that the victim was a law enforcement officer, and the victim’s status as a law enforcement officer is not an element of the offense.” Consequently, an exceptional sentence under RCW 9.94A.535(3)(v) may be imposed on remand if the jury finds the required elements based on Allen’s own misconduct.

3. DID THE SPECTATORS WEARING T-SHIRTS IN THE COURTROOM PREJUDICE ALLEN’S CASE?

The court decided that, based on the limited information in the record, it was unlikely that the t-shirts were inherently prejudicial. The T-shirts bore a message that said, “‘You will not be forgotten, Lakewood Police”‘ followed by a list of the victims’ names. The court said this message does not advocate for a message of guilt or innocence. Rather, the shirts were merely a silent showing of sympathy for the victims. Contrary to Allen’s arguments, the mere presence of words does not make a spectator display inherently prejudicial.

In conclusion, the prosecuting attorney committed prejudicial misconduct by misstating the proper standard upon which the jury could find Allen acted with knowledge. Based on that, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion?

The shootings were exceptionally tragic. These officers left friends and family in the wake of their senseless death. That said, the Prosecutor in this case clearly committed misconduct. i’ve been in jury trials where Prosecutors will bend and stretch the the law when it comes to whether a defendant had knoweldge they were committing a crime. Similar to the Prosecutor in this case, they’ll say “Well, the defendant should have known they were committing a crime.” This is an ABSOLUTE mistatement of the law. “Knowing” and “Should Have Known” are two very, very different levels of understanding. Here, saying Mr. Allen “Should Have Known” that Clemmons would commit murder implies that Mr. Allen had a legal duty to know what Clemmons was thinking about before committing the heinous murders he committed. That’s wrong, and an improper statement of the law.

 Again, I extend my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the police officers who lost their lives. 

State v. Davis: Unlawful Possession of Firearms, Rendering Criminal Assistance and Exceptional Sentences.

WA Supremes gave an interesting opinion touching upon the defendants who were allegedly involved in the Lakewood police officer shootings from last year. In short, the Supreme Court could not reach a 5-4 majority opinion on the issue of whether the State lacked evidence to support the defendant’s convictions for Possession of a Stolen Firearm. However, the State reached a majority “No” decision on the issue of whether Exceptional Sentence applied to this case. 

The underlying facts of State v. Davis are notorious and undisputed. On Sunday, November 29, 2009, Clemmons entered a coffee shop just before 8:00 a.m. with two handguns and began shooting at four Lakewood police officers, fatally wounding three. The fourth officer struggled with Clemmons and shot Clemmons once in the side, but Clemmons wrested the fourth officer’s gun from him, fatally shot him, and left with the stolen gun.

While on the run, Clemmons contacted defendants Eddie Lee Davis and Letrecia Nelson shortly after the murders. Clemmons went to Davis’ home, requested a ride to a house in Auburn, and said he had been shot while killing four police officers. Davis drove Clemmons to Nelson’s home. Nelson let Clemmons and Davis inside. Clemmons told Nelson he had killed four police officers, been shot in the process, and stolen one officer’s gun. At Clemmons’ request, he was given fresh clothing and help treating his gunshot wound. Nelson put some clothes and the stolen gun in a shopping bag that was left on a counter. Just before leaving, Clemmons asked where the gun was. Davis replied that it was in the bag on the counter and gave the bag to Clemmons. He left the home with the gun, and remained a fugitive from justice. On December 1, 2009, 2-3 days after the incident, Clemmons was gunned down by a Seattle Police Officer who pulled his car over.

Based on their actions following that contact, Davis and Nelson were charged by the Prosecutor and convicted at jury trial of Rendering Criminal Assistance and Possession of a Stolen Firearm. Davis was also convicted of Unlawful Possession of that self-same firearm. The conviction was appealed, and found its way to the WA Supreme Court.

The Court addressed the issues of whether (1) sufficient evidence supported Davis’ and Nelson’s convictions relating to possession of a firearm, and (2) whether the exceptional sentences for rendering criminal assistance factually were legally justified.

1. UNLAWFUL POSSESSION OF A FIREARM

The 4-person “majority” Court answered “Yes” to the question of whether sufficient evidence existed to support the convictions. The court reasoned there are two types of control: actual and constructive. A person actually possesses something that is in his or her physical custody, and constructively possesses something that is not in his or her physical custody but is still within his or her “dominion and control.” For either type, to establish possession the prosecution must prove more than a passing control; it must prove actual control. The length of time in itself does not determine whether control is actual or passing, and whether one has actual control over the item at issue depends on the totality of the circumstances presented.

In light of the totality of the circumstances, the Court was convinced that the State presented sufficient evidence to support a finding that Clemmons temporarily relinquished control over the stolen gun to Davis and Nelson while his wound was treated and he changed clothes. There was no testimony that Clemmons made any specific requests or orders as to what should be done with the stolen gun while he was at Nelson’s home, and he did not even know where the gun was until he was ready to leave about 15 minutes later. It is reasonable to infer that someone else decided what to do with the gun and that the decision-makers were Nelson and Davis because Nelson retrieved the shopping bag and put the gun inside it and Davis immediately responded when Clemmons asked where the gun was. Furthermore, both Nelson and Davis retained the ability to take further actions as to the gun until the time Davis gave it back to Clemmons because they knew where it was and Clemmons did not. Therefore, the court believed there was actual control sufficient to establish constructive possession.

2. EXCEPTIONAL SENTENCES

The Court answered “No” to the issue of whether the defendants should receive an exceptional upward sentence for their convictions. The Court said Exceptional Sentences are intended to impose additional punishment where the particular offense at issue causes more damage than that contemplated by the statute defining the offense. In that situation, the standard penalty for the offense is insufficient and an exceptional sentence based on an “aggravating factor” found by the jury remedies that insufficiency.

Here, the Court reasoned that, as a matter of law, the “aggravating factor” at issue cannot apply to Rendering Criminal Assistance charges.  Here, the “victim” was the public at large. However, Exceptional Sentences apply where there is “a destructive and foreseeable impact on persons other than the victim.” Because Rendering Criminal Assistance victimizes the general public, every member of the public is part of the victim class. There is no “other.” Therefore, the exceptional sentences imposed on Davis and Nelson were not legally justified.

The WA Supreme Court was highly divided on this issue. Justice Wiggins appeared to be the swaying vote. He concurred with the dissenting opinion that the evidence was insufficient to sustain Davis’s and Nelson’s firearm possession convictions. However, Justice Wiggins concurred with the majority opinion as far as the decision that the Exceptional Sentences imposed for Eddie Davis’s and Letricia Nelson’s convictions for Rendering Criminal Assistance were not legally justified.

Ultimately, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings.

State v. Huffman: Crossing the Centerline = DUI Arrest

Division I of the WA Court of Appeals decided that a single crossing of the centerline is sufficient to justify a traffic stop for a violation of RCW 46.61.100 Keep Right Except When Passing.

In State v. Huffman, defendant Sarah Huffman was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) after being pulled over for weaving in her lane, jerking back from the centerline and crossing the centerline on State Route 9. The two-mile section of the roadway is relatively straight, with a painted yellow line in the center that is at times a double solid line.

Police reports indicate the Trooper Eberle saw Huffman’s vehicle touch the centerline three times, each time immediately jerking back to the right side of the road. On the fourth occasion, the vehicle crossed the centerline by approximately one full tire width. Trooper Eberle did not recall any oncoming traffic at the time the vehicle crossed over the centerline. He stopped the vehicle and subsequently arrested the driver, appellant Sarah Huffman, for driving under the influence.

Huffman claimed the stop was unlawful because her single crossing of the centerline did not give rise to reasonable, articulable suspicion that she committed a traffic infraction under RCW 46.61.100. The district court agreed and granted her motion to suppress all evidence obtained after the stop. On appeal, the superior court reversed, concluding the stop was valid because Huffman committed a traffic infraction by crossing the centerline in violation of RCW 46.61.100.

Huffman appealed her case to Division I of the WA Court of Appeals. She argued that under State v. Prado, and its interpretation of RCW 46.61.140 Driving on Roadways Laned For Traffic, her momentary crossing of the centerline was not a traffic infraction and thus, there was no lawful basis for the stop.

Some background on RCW 46.61.140 and State v. Prado is necessary. In Prado, a law enforcement officer witnessed Mr. Tonelli-Prado’s vehicle cross an eight-inch white dividing the exit lane from the adjacent lane by two tire widths for one second. The Trooper pulled over Prado’s vehicle for violating RCW 46.61.140. This traffic statute addresses the safe changing of lanes (right or left or turn) and the use of a center lane, but does not mention a centerline. RCW 46.61.140(1) states:

Whenever any roadway has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic the following rules in addition to all others consistent herewith shall apply: (1) A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.

The trial court found that that Prado’s motion to suppress was not appropriate because the vehicle actually crossed the lane line, rather than merely touching the lane line. Upon review, however, the Superior Court found that under a totality of the circumstances argument, that a brief incursion not resulting in a “safety problem” was not sufficient grounds to pull over the vehicle. The Prosecutor appealed the ruling of the Superior Court to Division I Court of Appeals. On appeal, Division I upheld the Superior Court and ruled that a vehicle crossing over the line for one second by two tire widths on an exit lane does not justify a belief that the vehicle was operated unlawfully under RCW 46.61.140(1).

In light of this background, Division I granted Huffman’s appeal to decide whether (1) State v. Prado applies and (2) whether the “as nearly as practicable” language of RCW 46.61.140 also applies to RCW 46.61.100.

The Court decided “No,” and “No.” The plain reading of the two statutes and their different objectives leads one to believe that the “nearly as practicable” qualifying language from RCW 46.61.140(1) does NOT apply to RCW 46.61.100. “Our decision in Prado is limited to its facts which involved only a violation of RCW 46.61.140, not RCW 46.61.100. Because it is undisputed that Huffman crossed the centerline, the officer was justified in stopping her to investigate a violation of RCW 46.61.100.” Based on that, the Court of Appeals vacated and reversed the trial court’s orders suppressing all evidence and dismissing the prosecution. The Court also reinstated the charges against Huffman and remanded this matter back to the district court for trial.

My opinion? The Huffman opinion is an attempt to limit the scope and applicability of Prado’s reasoning to RCW 46.61.140. Ever since Prado was decided 7 years ago, the Prosecutors and Judges in district courts have rallied against it. Prado took too much discretionary power out of the hands of police officers who follow and pull over motorists suspected of DUI. Here, the Court of Appeals “stopped the insanity” of Prado and limit its reasoning to violations of RCW 46.61.140 only.

Unfortunately, a pendular swing in one direction often gives momentum to a pendular swing in the opposite direction. More specifically, I fear that the reasoning of Huffman might be applicable to violations of RCW 46.61.670 Driving With Wheels Off Roadway. The statute says the following:

It shall be unlawful to operate or drive any vehicle or combination of vehicles over or along any pavement or gravel or crushed rock surface on a public highway with one wheel or all of the wheels off the roadway thereof, except as permitted by RCW 46.61.428 or for the purpose of stopping off such roadway, or having stopped thereat, for proceeding back onto the pavement, gravel or crushed rock surface thereof.

Therefore – and worst-case scenario – under Huffman, a motorist who briefly/unlawfully drives on a road with one or more wheels off the roadway can be pulled over and investigated for DUI.

Is this fair?

State v. Nicholas: Court Rejects “Jury Nullification” Arguments

VERY interesting opinion from the WA Court of Appeals raises and dismisses the issue of whether jury nullification has any place in jury deliberations.

In State v. Nicholas, a jury found defendant Scott Nelson guilty of Possession with Intent to Deliver Methamphetamine, Possession of Marijuana and Use of Drug Paraphernalia. Nicholas appealed the verdict and argued that the trial court errored when it allowed the Prosecutor’s jury instruction saying, it was the jury’s “duty to return a verdict of guilty.”

Some background on jury nullification is necessary. Basically, it occurs in a trial when a jury acquits a defendant, even though the jury believes the defendant is guilty of the charges. This happens when members of the jury disagree with the law the defendant has been charged with breaking, or believe that the law should not be applied in that particular case. Nullification is a juror’s knowing and deliberate rejection of the evidence or refusal to apply the law because the result dictated by law is contrary to the juror’s sense of justice, morality, or fairness.

Here, the defendant took issue with the notion that the “To Acquit” instruction from the Prosecutor states that jurors have a duty to acquit if they found the defendant guilty of the charges. This “duty” language, said the defendant, violates his right to have the jury acquit him if they disagreed with the law itself.

However, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the State of Washington’s 1874 case Hartigan v. Territory of Washington dissasembles the defendant’s argument: The Hartigan court wrote, “A juryman is just as much bound by the laws ofthis territory as any other citizen. He acquires no right to disregard that law simply because he has taken an oath as juryman to aid in its administration.”

The court also reasoned, “Judges must declare the law, while jurors must swear to faithfully apply that law.” Their oath to faithfully apply the law is under RCW 4.44.260, which states the following:

When the jury has been selected, an oath or affirmation shall be administered to the jurors, in substance that they and each ofthem, will well, and truly try, the matter in issue between the plaintiff and defendant, anda true verdict give, according to the law and evidence as given them on the trial.

Consequently, the Court reasoned that the use of the word “duty” is consistent with the oath requirement that the jury give a true verdict, and that it does so according to the law and evidence.

Finally, the Court discussed the horrors surrounding the verdicts of defendants accused of killing and maiming individuals because of racial hatred, and that these jurors exercised jury nullification even though the evidence against the defendants was strong. The court describes how the murder trials involving the death of African American Emmett Till and NAACP leader Medgar Evers were horrible examples of jury nullification gone wrong.

The Court of Appeals concluded with a strong, scathing remark on jury nullification:

A fundamental value of America is the rule of law rather than rule by men. The Washington populace justifiably does not want activist judges who base decisions upon political views or moral judgments. The same should hold true for jurors. Jury nullification destroys the rule of law upon which America is based. As the 1992 Los Angeles riots evidence, nullification engenders anarchy.

My opinion? I see the pros and cons of this decision. On the one hand, I agree with the court that jury nullification can lead to horrible results and miscarriages of justice. On the other hand, although jury nullification is by no means a Constitutional right, it is an inherent feature of the use of jury trial verdicts. Sometimes, the law is simply unjust, misapplied by Prosecutors or simply out-of-touch with today’s reality.

For the most part, jury nullification is sometimes applied by juries yet rarely spoken about in open court. It is  certainly not supported by judges. 99.9% of all judges will refuse to formally instruct juries that the may “nullify” and acquit a defendant based on their disagreements with the law itself. Indeed, judges constantly tell juries they must apply the law, not disagree with it! Judges know that the power to acquit a defendant does not require any instruction from the judge telling the jury that it may do so. In other words, although courts recognize that jury nullification occurs in practice, they will not promote it nor educate jurors about nullification.

Again, interesting opinion.

State v. Lawson: Burglary & Voyeurism

Interesting opinion.

In State v. Lawson, the WA Court of Appeals supported the defendant’s convictions for both Voyeurism and Burglary. Here, the defendant was prosecuted for sneaking inside the women’s restrooms at Harrison Medical Center and Barnes & Noble and spying on different females from bathroom stalls as they entered and used the restroom facilities.

The Prosecution charged the defendant with one count of Burglary First Degree, two counts of Burglary Second Degree, one count of Assault Second Degree, one count of Voyeurism, and two counts of Criminal Attempt of Voyeurism. The jury returned guilty verdicts on each charge except for Assault Second Degree. The defendant appealed the jury verdicts on the argument that the State failed to introduce sufficient evidence to prove the Barnes and Noble voyeurism charge and each of the Burglary charges.

However, the Court of Appeals disagreed. Under statute, a person commits the crime of Voyeurism if he knowingly views another person in a place where that person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Here, a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy inside a restroom. The Court reasoned it is undisputed that the defendant viewed women by peeking over the restroom stall door in a place that was clearly delineated for use by women only. It stated, “Although the women’ s restroom was inside an otherwise public building and while a person might not usually disrobe inside the common area, one expects privacy in a restroom.”

 The Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence is insufficient to support Burglary convictions because voyeurism is not “a crime against person or property,” which is a prerequisite to a Burglary conviction. Instead, the Court reasoned that voyeurism is a crime against a person and, therefore, can serve as the predicate crime for Burglary Second Degree. The Court further reasoned there was sufficient evidence to conclude that the defendant was guilty of the Burglaries because he entered the women’ s restroom with the intent to commit a crime against a person or property.

With that, the Court affirmed the defendant’s convictions.