State v. Strange: Was the Jury “Tainted” or Impartial?

In State v. Strange, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury was not violated by a prospective jurors’ statements concerning their own prior experiences with child molestation.

Here, defendant George Strange was accused of Child Molestation Second Degree and Voyeurism. from 2011 to 2013, Strange lived with his wife and his wife’ s children, who are juveniles. Here, juvenile J.M. was 12 years old when Strange allegedly fondled her breasts one night. He explained he was giving her a breast examination.

During jury selection, the court and attorneys asked the prospective jurors about their personal experiences with child molestation. Although most of the jurors had no personal experience with child molestation, almost one-third of the jurors knew someone who was either a victim or had been charged with child molestation. In response to the court’ s questioning, juror no. 54 stated,

JUROR: “Um — what I said before, like, I know people that I know. Like it’ s not an easy accusation to make. Like, it is hard for people (inaudible). It’ s like if accusations were made there’ s something behind that . . . I don’ t — like, I don’t have a ton of experience but it has just been my experience people don’ t make that accusation, you know, for no reason. Like, I feel like if an accusation was made there had to be something that had happened.”

Juror no. 54 was excused for unrelated hardship reasons.

During trial, other witnesses testified to Strange’s odd behavior around J.M. Additionally, the State played a recorded video of Strange being interviewed by a police detective who commented on Strange’s behavior during the interview. Finally, Strange did not call any witnesses nor did he testify. At the end of trial, Strange was found guilty on all counts.

On appeal, Strange argued that his right to a fair trial by an impartial jury was violated because of prospective jurors’ statements concerning their own prior experiences with child molestation, either in their families or among friends or acquaintances, which tainted the entire jury venire.

The court rejected Strange’s arguments. It reasoned that article I, § 22 of the Washington Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a fair trial by unbiased jurors.” Also, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution also guarantees the right to a fair trial by impartial jurors. Here, no prospective juror professed any expertise about sexual abuse cases. Therefore, there is no concern about a prospective juror with more credible, authoritative knowledge tainting the rest of the jury pool.

Second, most jurors were merely questioned about their experiences with child molestation and asked if they could remain impartial. Some jurors admitted to a potential bias, most said they could apply the court’ s instructions impartially, and two prospective jurors asked for individual voir dire, preferring not to talk about their experiences in front of the rest of the jury pool. Consequently, the Court of Appeals decided that Strange received a fair trial by an impartial jury.

Finally, the court rejected Strange’s argument that his defense attorney was ineffective because he failed to object to the admission of Strange’s recorded interview with police. The court reasoned that because defense counsel’s failure to object was a legitimate trial tactic, it cannot be said that Strange’ s trial counsel’ s performance was deficient. Therefore, his claim for ineffective assistance of counsel fails. The decision of Strange’s attorney to not play the video was a legitimate trial tactic, and did not amount to ineffective assistance of counsel.

My opinion? Oftentimes, during jury selection, prospective jurors say things out loud which may appear to discredit the defendant, especially when the charges are particularly galvanizing. A defense attorney must be cautious in proceeding with these jurors. A good technique is to ask the juror to extrapolate “what they mean” if the juror says they have difficulty being objective, and/or if the juror says the defendant “must be guilty of something.” The attorney can strike the juror for cause because the juror could be biased against the defendant.

Still, it’s difficult to “unring the bell,” so to speak, when a prospective juror says controversial things which may hurt the defendant’s chances at trial if the rest of the jury pool believes that juror’s statements. This is the essence of “tainting the jury,” which is reversible error and should be avoided at all costs. In response, another good tactic is to inquire if other potential jurors feel the same as the juror who aired their grievances. Find someone shaking their head “No.” Ask them why. Chances are, they’ll say something about giving the defendant a fair trial, or presumption of innocence, or something like that. Test the waters. Guide the jurors back toward their oath that they MUST presume the defendant not guilty throughout trial. Remind them that if they serve as jurors, they’re under oath to withhold their personal biases and reserve judgment until after hearing all of the evidence.