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Appeals Court Reverses Conviction in 11 Person Jury Trial

By | Jury Trial

12 Persons Required to Serve on Texas Felony Jury Trial – Fort Worth Trial Lawyers

Fort Worth Jury Trial LawyersA felony jury trial in Texas requires 12 jurors (with limited exceptions). The defense can waive that requirement under certain circumstances, and jurors can be excused under certain circumstances. But generally, a felony jury panel must have 12. Below, we discuss a case in Denton County where the jury started with 12 and then went to 11 because a juror could not understand the English language well enough to serve.

Stillwell v. State – Opinion issued by the 2nd District Court of Appeals (Fort Worth) on May 28, 2015

Appellant, Eben Stilwell was convicted in the 367th District Court in Denton County by an 11-person jury of indecency with a child and sentenced to 12 years in prison. A jury of 12 was originally empaneled but after three days of testimony, one of the jurors came forward and informed the court that he was having difficulty understanding the proceedings. The juror primarily spoke Spanish and was having difficulty following the proceedings because they were in English.

During the conversation between the judge and the juror, the juror repeatedly said “I understand a little bit” or “I don’t understand.” Both the defense and state agreed that the juror did not adequately understand the English language and was not completely following what was going on in the courtroom.

The prosecution and defense disagreed, however, as to the legal basis for the juror’s removal. The state urged that juror be deemed “disabled” under Tex.Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 36.29(a), which would allow the trial to proceed with 11 jurors over defense objection. The defense argued that because the juror was never able to serve, he was disqualified and a trial using 11 jurors could only proceed with the defendant’s consent. The defendant did not consent to continuing the trial with only 11 jurors. The trial court followed that state’s recommendation and dismissed the juror as disabled, continuing the trial with only 11 jurors.

The 2nd District Court of Appeals (Fort Worth), Justice Sudderth writing the opinion for the court, held that the court could have allowed the juror to remain on the jury because the right to have him excluded due to his inability to understand English had been forfeited. It is always the attorneys‘ duty to determine that capability and fitness of the jurors during voir dire. Neither party inquired as to ability to understand the English language.

But, once the court determined that the juror should be dismissed, consent of the defendant was required to proceed with 11 jurors. Because appellant did not agree to proceed with 11 jurors, a mistrial was required. The lower court was reversed.

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Fort Worth Texas Jury Trial Criminal Law

When the Jury’s Sentence is Outside the Punishment Range

By | Jury Trial

Jury Trial Sentencing in Texas

Fort Worth Texas Jury Trial Criminal LawEvery level of criminal offense in Texas has a corresponding punishment range for the jury to consider.  With the exception of enhancements or other minor differences, the Texas punishment ranges are as follows:

  • Class B Misdemeanor = 0-180 days County Jail and $0-$2,000 fine
  • Class A Misdemeanor = 0-365 days County Jail and $0-$4,000 fine
  • State Jail Felony = 6 months – 2 years State Jail and $0-$10,000 fine
  • 3rd Degree Felony = 2-10 years Prison and $0-$10,000 fine
  • 2nd Degree Felony = 2-20 years Prison and $0-$10,000 fine
  • 1st Degree Felony = 5-99 years Prison and $0-$10,000 fine

A jury verdict on sentencing should be within the punishment range to the particular offense.  But what happens if the jury deviates from the punishment range?

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh District (Amarillo) recently considered this scenario in Melton v. State. In Melton, the defendant was facing 2-20 years and up to a $10,000 fine if convicted.  The jury returned a sentence of 15 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.  Of course, the $15,000 fine was outside the punishment range.

The court of appeals wrestled with the option of remanding the case back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing on BOTH the term of confinement and the fine or the fine only.  Ultimately, the court reasoned:

Article 37.10(b) contemplates that a jury can assess more than one type of punishment, to-wit: “punishment that is authorized by law for the offense and punishment that is not authorized by law for the offense . . . .” Because this statutory provision contemplates the situation where the period of confinement is authorized by law and the amount of the fine is not authorized by law, we conclude the Legislature intended to allow the reformation of a judgment as to the issue of the fine only.

Accordingly, the COA remanded the case back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing on the fine only.  The term of confinement was sustained.

The Uncertainty of Criminal Trial

By | Trial Advocacy

This past week in Tarrant County, Texas I watched a sexual assault trial that I never dreamed would end in a conviction.  We were not defending the case, but I found it interesting, so I went to watch part of the trial.  While the defendant was not particularly likable, it didn’t seem to me that she was a criminal.  I knew the jurors would not like her, but I didn’t think they would convict her of a felony offense.  But that’s the thing about trial.  I don’t get to sit on the jury.  It only matters what 12 citizens think about the case.  I can think about criminal cases in purely legal terms, but jurors are often swayed by emotion.

This case reminded me that there is always a risk in going to trial.  An inherent uncertainty.  Even when you feel pretty confident about your case.  Thankfully, our criminal defense firm has been fortunate enough to get some favorable verdicts in recent trials, but those could have gone the other way very easily.  It is a sobering reality for criminal defense lawyers that someone’s life and future is in your hands.  Even more sobering, however, is the realization that at trial it’s only partly in your hands.  All we can do is prepare, prepare, prepare, and put forth our very best effort.

You’ll Get a Jury Trial and Like It!

By | Jury Trial

Spalding“I want a hamburger…no, a cheeseburger.”

“Spalding!”

Although every criminal defendant is innocent until proven guilty and has the absolute right to a trial on the merits, there are times when it is in the defendant’s best interest to plead guilty to receive a lesser sentence or probation.  Sometimes, that is the best advice I can give.  In these times, our goal is to mitigate the sentence.

However, if you can believe it, the State does not always offer a fair an acceptable plea bargain on sentencing.  In these cases, one of the options is for the defendant is to plead open (i.e. without the protection of a deal) to the judge.  This is a tactical choice.  Some cases are better for a judge and others for a jury. But in Texas it is not exactly the defendant’s choice.

In my Marine Corps days, operating under the military justice system, an accused has the right to sentencing by a jury or by judge alone.  It is the defendant’s choice alone and no one can interfere with that choice.  Seems fair enough, right?

In Texas, however, if a defendant wants to plead guilty and waive his right to a jury, thereby allowing the judge to impose the sentence, the State (i.e. the prosecution) has to consent to it.  If the judge allows a defendant to plead guilty and waive his right to a jury trial without the State’s consent, the judge risks a mandamus action directing him to vacate the judgments.

That is exactly what happened in Travis County in the case of State v. Gonzales (In Re Escamilla).

As the appellate court noted:

Article 1.13 of the code of criminal procedure provides that, other than in a capital felony case in which the State will seek the death penalty, a criminal defendant may enter a plea and waive his right to a jury trial as long as the waiver is made “in person by the defendant in writing in open court with the consent and approval of the court, and the attorney representing the state.” Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 1.13(a).

The 3rd District Court of Appeals (Austin), in a memorandum opinion, granted mandamus relief and directed the trial court to vacate its judgment. Now they’ll have to see what a jury thinks of the case.

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Accomodating Public Attendance at a Prison Trial

By | Jury Trial, Public Trial

Lilly v. State

Best Fort Worth Criminal defense attorneysThe Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees an accused the right to a public trial in all criminal prosecutions.

Appellant Conrad Lilly, was charged with two counts of assault on a public servant while he was in prison.  The trial court sua sponte convened his trial in the prison-chapel courtroom in lieu of the local courthouse.  Appellant objected to his case being tried in the prison chapel and moved for a change of venue, arguing that his 6th Amendment right to a public trial was violated because “prisons are not open to the public and are more like military zones than public places.”  The trial court denied his change of venue request and the 11th Court of Appeals (Eastland) affirmed.

To support his claim, appellant pointed out the following facts to show that, as applied in his case, the prison chapel trial violated his constitutional rights:

  1. The prison is protected by double razor fences, locked metal doors, and high-security procedures;
  2. Only people listed on an inmate-defendant’s approved visitor list could enter the branch courthouse to attend proceedings (only 10 names can appear on that list and the names can only be modified once every 6 months);
  3. Media and other members of the public would be prohibited from entering unless TDCJ officials in Huntsville preapproved the media’s request;
  4. People attempting to attend the proceeding could be denied entrance if they wore offensive clothing; and
  5. Unaccompanied minors and people released from confinement within the last two years are prohibited from entering the prison at all.

In this case, “the court of appeals held that Appellant’s trial was not closed to the public because there was no evidence that anyone was ‘dissuaded from attempting’ to attend, and no one was actually prohibited from attending his trial.”  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with this analysis.  The focus of the inquiry, the CCA explained, “is not whether the defendant can show that someone was actually excluded.  Rather, a reviewing court must look to the totality of the evidence and determine whether the trial court fulfilled its obligation ‘to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trial.'”

[E]ven though many of the individual admittance policies in this case would not, standing alone, necessarily amount to a per se closure, the cumulative effect of the Unit’s policies undermines our confidence that every reasonable measure was taken to accommodate public attendance at Appellant’s trial.

Having found that Appellant’s trial was indeed closed to the public, the CCA further held that the trial court failed to make findings of fact on the record that justified closing Appellant’s trial.  Because Appellant’s 6th Amendment right to a public trial was violated, the CCA reversed the judgments of the court of appeals and the trial court, and remanded the case for a new trial.

The CCA refrained from considering or commenting on whether prison trials are inherently violative of the 6th Amendment, noting that there could be occasions where a “public trial” is held in a prison.

Jury instructions on witnesses

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say…

By | Jury Trial

Jury Instruction on Failure of Family to Testify During Sentencing

Jury instructions on witnessesAfter the defendant was convicted in the case of Lucio v. State, and the case proceeded to the punishment phase, the jury noticed something conspicuous about the defense case…nobody from the defendant’s family came to the witness stand to testify on his behalf. No poor momma with tears in her eyes. No sister or brother to testify about what a good person the defendant is at heart. Nothing. Just crickets. Curious about why nobody from the defendant’s family testified, the jury sent a question in to the trial judge while they were deliberating on the sentence:

Does the law prevent a family member from speaking during the sentencing phase, for the defendant?

Over defense counsel objection, the trial court provided the following response to the jury:

The law does not prohibit a family member from testifying on behalf of a defendant so long as the witness has relevant evidence related to an issue in the case. You have heard all of the witnesses who have been called to testify. Please continue your deliberations.

Of course, there were two inferences that the jury could reasonably draw from the instruction: (1) none of the available family members could provide relevant information, or (2) the defendant did not want to call any family members because they would not provide favorable testimony.

On appeal, the defense argued that the trial court’s instruction was an improper comment on the evidence. The 2nd District Court of Appeals (Fort Worth) disagreed and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted discretionary review to settle the issue. Here’s what the CCA held:

We conclude that the general rule that prohibits the court from singling out a particular piece of evidence in its instructions to the jury given prior the jury deliberations does not necessarily apply when the court merely responds to the jury’s question concerning a subject identified by the jury.

The court noted that the court’s instruction was a correct statement of the law that did not improperly convey a “personal estimation of the strength or credibility” of evidence. The CCA affirmed the court of appeals.

Judge Meyers dissented, opining that:

the trial court’s instructions indicate to the jury that it is permissible to focus on the fact that the defendant’s family did not testify at punishment. In doing so, the judge expressed an opinion as to the weight of the evidence…

Comment on Defendant's Right to Remain Silent

A Prosecutor’s Comment on a Defendant’s Right Not to Testify

By | Jury Trial

The Extent of a Defendant’s Right Not to Testify?

Comment on Defendant's Right to Remain SilentIf a criminal defendant takes the stand during trial on the merits and denies culpability, but then, after being convicted, chooses not to testify during the punishment phase of the trial, may the prosecutor comment during closing that the defendant has “not taken responsibility for the crime?”

The 1st District Court of Appeals (Houston) says NO. But what about the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals?

In Randolph v. State, No. PD-0404-10 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011), appellant testified during guilt/innocence he was never at the scene of the crime and offered the jury an alibi. After the jury convicted him, he did not take the stand during the punishment phase of the trial. The prosecutor argued during close (in the punishment phase):

You heard from him, you heard his version and you dismissed it by finding him guilty. He has not taken responsibility for this crime.

On appeal, appellant relied upon Swallow v. State, 829 S.W.2d 223 (Tex. Crim. App. 1992) to argue that the prosecutor improperly commented on his failure to testify during the punishment phase of trial. The 1st COA agreed and held the prosecution violated the precedent set forth in Swallow. The CCA didn’t buy it, however, holding:

[A] punishment-stage remark on the defendant’s failure to accept responsibility may be fair game if the defendant, in his guilt-stage testimony, denied responsibility for his actions or for the crime.

The 1st COA held this closing argument remark was the same as the remark given by the state in Swallow, but the CCA distinguishes:

But in this case the prosecutor said nothing about remorse or lack of remorse. She spoke only of “responsibility of the crime” – responsibility that appellant explicitly denied during his testimony. This Court, in Swallow, inadvertently combined the apples of “remorse” (which is generally expressed only after accepting responsibility) with the oranges of “responsibility.”

The CCA further explained:

The prosecutor may comment on any testimony given by the defendant in the guilt stage, and, if the defendant expressly or impliedly denies criminal responsibility during that testimony, the prosecutor may comment on that denial.

Dissenting Judge Meyers asserts:

By referring to the fact that Appellant did not take responsibility for the crime, the state pointed out that the defendant did not testify during punishment phase of his trial. The majority complicates the matter by analyzing the definitions of the words used by the prosecutor, rather than considering their obvious meaning – thus creating a horrible Hobson’s choice for the defendant, an indiscernible dilemma for the trial judge, and an appellate record that will be difficult to decipher.

Texas 404(b) Evidence

Fort Worth Court of Appeals Cheapens the Meaning of “Modus Operandi”

By | Jury Trial

Texas 404(b) EvidenceThe general rule is that the defendant is to be tried only for the offense charged, not for any other crimes or for being a criminal generally. However, evidence of extraneous acts of misconduct may be admissible if (1) the uncharged act is relevant to a material issue in the case, and (2) the probative value of that evidence is not significantly outweighed by its prejudicial effect. Because the propensity to commit crimes is not a material fact in a criminal case, Texas Rule of Evidence 404(b) explicitly prohibits the admission of uncharged acts to prove conduct in conformity with a bad character.

Last week the 2nd District (Fort Worth Court of Appeals) considered the issue of modus operandi (i.e. criminal signature) in the case of Price v. State. In Price, the appellant had been convicted at trial of aggravated robbery after he was identified by a convenience store clerk as the African American man who entered the store armed with a crowbar and wearing a towel on his head demanding money from the cash register. The State offered evidence of other uncharged convenience store robberies as evidence of “identity” or modus operandi under Texas Rule of Evidence 404(b). Over appellant’s objection, the trial court allowed the evidence of the extraneous offenses to come in.

If you were to read only the majority opinion, you might agree that because the defense attempted to impeach the convenience store clerk on the issue of identity, the defendant opened the door to (i.e. made relevant) the evidence that there were three similar robberies done by a man in the local area. However, from Justice Dauphinot’s dissent, we learn that there was more to it than that.

Justice Dauphinot demands the majority to answer how it was that the defense opened the door to the issue of identity of when all the defense counsel did during his cross of the State’s witness was to repeat the questions that the prosecutor already asked. You see, the prosecutor in this case, in an effort to take the sting out the some of the weak points, raised the issue of identity during direct examination. How then, asks the dissenting Justice, can the prosecutor then rely on the issue of “identity” to survive a 404(b) objection to the admissibility of the extraneous offenses?

Justice Dauphinot also points out that mere “identity” is typically not enough to survive a 404(b) objection in cases like this. What the court should really be concerned with is modus operandi.

One of the main rationales for admitting extraneous-offense evidence is to prove the identity of the offender. Here, the theory of relevancy is usually that of modus operandi in which the pattern and characteristics of the charged crime and the uncharged misconduct are so distinctively similar that they constitute a ―signature. Usually, it is the accretion of small, sometimes individually insignificant, details that marks each crime as the handiwork or modus operandi of a single individual.

In this case, the majority noted that the offense at trial and the extraneous offenses were all committed by a black man. After all, how many black men can there possibly be in North Texas? The court further noted, without discussion, that the men in the extraneous offenses also wore a towel on his head. Lastly, the majority mentions that the man or men in the extraneous offenses carried a weapon. Not always a crowbar. In one offense the perpetrator carried a knife and in another he carried a steel pipe. To Justice Dauphinot, these facts are not markedly similar enough to indicate a modus operandi. In her opinion, the State did not meet its burden to show that that “the extraneous act has relevance apart from its tendency to prove character conformity.”

Facebook Evidence Fort Worth Texas

The Facebook Jury Instruction

By | Jury Trial

Facebook Evidence Fort Worth TexasAs I was perusing my typical news sources this morning, I came across this article about a Tarrant County juror who was excused from a civil case and then charged with contempt for trying to “friend” the defendant in the case on Facebook.  That’s the world in which we live, I suppose.  Everything is real-time, social media is pervasive, and folks are indiscriminate about what they do online.  It has already been and will continue to be interesting to see how the trial judges tackle this issue in their instructions to venire panels.  It is probably prudent to have a standard Facebook jury instruction.

Defendant entitled to transcript of mistrial.

Is a Defendant Entitled To Transcript of a Prior Mistrial?

By | Jury Trial

Defendant entitled to transcript of mistrial.Blackshear v. State (link not working for now) 14th District Court of Appeals (Houston) 2011.

In Blackshear, the jury convicted appellant of possession of a controlled substance, but could not agree on an appropriate sentence. The judge declared a mistrial for the sentencing portion of the case. The State, which did not put on any evidence during the initial sentencing phase, decided to recall some of the trial witnesses during the new sentencing hearing to give the new jurors a better taste of the evidence. Accordingly, the appellant requested a continuance so that he could obtain a transcript of the prior trial in order to prepare a proper defense during the new sentencing hearing. The trial court, however, was more interested in a speedy disposition and denied the request for a continuance, empaneled a new jury the very same day, and conducted the sentencing hearing the following day. On appeal, the 14th COA held that it was error for the trial court to deny the continuance. The appellant had a presumptive right to the transcript that the State did not rebut. Here’s how the court explained it:

The State must, as a matter of equal protection, provide indigent prisoners with the basic tools of an adequate defense or appeal when those tools are available for a price to other prisoners. Among these basic tools is a transcript of prior proceedings when needed for an effective defense or appeal. In determining whether a defendant needs a transcript, the Britt court took two factors into account: (1) the value of the transcript to an effective defense, and (2) the availability of alternative devices that would fulfill the same functions as a transcript.

 In considering the first factor, the Britt court noted that “our cases have consistently recognized the value to a defendant of a transcript of prior proceedings, without requiring a showing of need tailored to the facts of the particular case.” Ordinarily, the court concluded, a transcript of a prior mistrial is valuable to the defendant in at least two ways: as a discovery device in preparation for trial, and as a tool at the trial itself for the impeachment of prosecution witnesses. The Court of Criminal Appeals has expressly presumed a defendant’s need for a transcript and has imposed upon the State the burden to rebut the presumption.

An easy decision for the 14th COA in Blackshear. “Blackshear’s counsel should have been able to use the transcript from the first trial in his cross-examination in the second.” The trial court denied the request. No transcript = remand for new sentencing hearing.