In State v. Sage, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial based upon the victim’s behavior – glaring at the defendant – when called to the stand.
Jonathan Sage faced four counts of second degree rape of a child. He was alleged to have engaged in sexual acts with minors J.M. and E.M., and came into contact with the two brothers because he owned a company at which J.M. and E.M.’s mother worked.
The case proceeded to trial. During proceedings, the victim E.M. glared at Sage as he entered the courtroom. Sage’s defense attorney objected and requested an immediate mistrial. He described the interaction as follows:
“E.M. walked past defense counsel and hissed at the Defendant, bent down, and made an aggressive stare. As best as I could tell, the jurors looked horrified. Their reaction is clear that the stance or that moment is going to live in their minds as opposed to what he
testifies to. My client has a right to a fair trial, to be presumed innocent, and I don’t know that he can get a fair trial with this jury after that behavior.”
Although the trial judge sustained defense counsel’s objection, the court denied the motion for mistrial and instructed the jury to disregard E.M.’s behavior.
The jury convicted Sage on all four counts and, by special verdict, found the alleged aggravating circumstances had been established. The court concluded the aggravating circumstances were substantial and compelling reasons to impose an exceptional sentence.
Sage appealed his conviction and his exceptional sentence under the argument that his motion for a mistrial should have been granted because E.M.’s courtroom behavior prejudiced the jury.
COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals reasoned that a trial court should only grant a mistrial when the defendant has been so prejudiced that nothing short of a new trial can ensure that the defendant will be fairly tried. To determine the effect of the irregularity leading to the request for a mistrial, the court examines: (i) its seriousness; (ii) whether it involved cumulative evidence; and (iii) whether the trial court properly instructed the jury to disregard it.
“Here, E.M. entered the courtroom and glared at Sage,” said the Court of Appeals. “The trial court denied Sage’s motion for mistrial and entered a detailed ruling on the record. Unlike a verbal outburst or threatening gesture, E.M. glared at Sage. The court gave a curative instruction. E.M. did not repeat the behavior after the trial court instructed the jury to disregard the behavior,” said the Court of Appeals. “We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion.” Also, the Court of Appeals upheld Sage’s exceptional sentence based on aggravating factors.
With that, the Court upheld Sage’s conviction and exceptional sentence.