Medina v. People

Decision Date27 June 2005
Docket Number No. 04SC167, No. 04SC334.
Citation114 P.3d 845
PartiesYvonne MEDINA, Petitioner, v. The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent. Phillip Moses, Petitioner, v. The People of the State of Colorado, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Rehearing Denied August 8, 2005.1

David S. Kaplan, Colorado State Public Defender, Tracy C. Renner, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, for Petitioner Yvonne Medina.

David S. Kaplan, Colorado State Public Defender, Shann Jeffery, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, for Petitioner Phillip Moses.

John W. Suthers, Attorney General, Roger G. Billotte, Assistant Attorney General, Appellate Division, Criminal Justice Section, Denver, for Respondent.

Justice BENDER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

In this consolidated opinion, we review the propriety of jury questioning in Colorado. The court of appeals held that juror questioning in these two cases did not violate the defendant's right to a fair trial and impartial jury and, that under the terms of the Colorado Jury Reform Pilot Project, the defendants were not prejudiced by the questions posed by the jurors. People v. Medina, No. 02CA0202, slip op. at 6-7, 2004 WL 1119296 (Colo.App. Feb.5, 2004) (not selected for official publication); People v. Moses, No. 02CA0925, slip op. at 7-8, 2004 WL 817399 (Colo.App. Apr.15, 2004) (not selected for official publication).

We hold that juror questioning of witnesses does not create a per se violation of a defendant's right to a fair trial. When the applicable rules of law and evidence are applied and after consulting with counsel, the decision of whether to ask a juror's question is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court. Like other instances where a trial court errs in admitting otherwise inadmissible evidence, improper juror questions which are asked by the court will be reviewed for harmless error. We also hold that while it was error to ask one of the juror's questions in Medina's case, the impact of the evidence adduced from the question was harmless. And, we hold that in Moses's case, no error occurred despite the possibility that the jury overheard a bench conference to discuss the admissibility of a juror's question and where prejudicial statements were not made. Hence, we affirm the court of appeals and remand these cases to that court to return them to the trial court for action consistent with this opinion.

I. Facts and Proceedings Below

These two cases raise questions about the validity of allowing jurors to ask witnesses questions during a criminal trial. In September of 2000, Chief Justice Mary J. Mullarkey authorized a pilot project to study the effects of permitting jurors to submit written questions to witnesses during certain criminal trials.2 The Colorado Jury Reform Pilot Project Subcommittee provided a list of policies and procedures that the district court was to follow when jurors asked questions. Pursuant to these policies, jurors were allowed to submit written questions to the court before a particular witness was excused from the witness stand. Trial courts were not required to ask all questions submitted by jurors. Rather, courts were instructed that the purpose behind the project was to clarify testimony and to help jurors understand the evidence. Thus, before asking a question, the court first reviewed the questions and heard all objections from counsel, on the record, outside the jury's hearing. Keeping in mind the rights of all parties to due process and the right to a fair trial, the trial court then was directed to apply the applicable rules of law and evidence, and if the question was proper in light of these considerations, the court asked the witness the question. Once the question was answered, the attorneys were given an opportunity to ask follow-up questions of the witness. At the conclusion of the trial, the jurors, judge, and attorneys completed survey forms about their experience with jurors asking questions in that particular case. These two cases in this consolidated opinion were randomly selected at the trial level to be part of the pilot project.

In this opinion, we first set forth the facts that led to the petitioners' cases before us. We then give an overview of juror questioning in this country and establish the standard of review for determining if a defendant is prejudiced by a juror's question. We then apply that standard to the cases of the respective petitioner.

A. Yvonne Medina

Yvonne Medina was convicted by a jury of second degree assault, crime of violence, criminal mischief, first degree criminal trespass, and menacing. The court sentenced her to five and one-half years in the Department of Corrections. The evidence presented at trial showed that the victim, her ex-boyfriend, was home in his apartment when Medina knocked at his door. The victim refused to let her in because his new girlfriend was in the apartment. Medina then broke a window next to the door, reached in, and unlocked the front door. Once inside, she picked up a piece of glass, approached her ex-boyfriend, and stabbed him several times while the other woman hid in a closet. The victim then left his apartment to seek help and when he returned, he found his apartment vandalized.

At the beginning of the trial, the court advised counsel and the jury that jurors would be allowed to submit questions to witnesses through the court pursuant to the pilot project guidelines authorized by the Chief Justice. Defense counsel objected to the procedure. Only one question was asked by the jury throughout the trial.

Medina's theory of defense was that the victim and the other woman concocted the story about what had occurred and that Medina was not at the ex-boyfriend's apartment the night of the incident. In support of this theory, Medina called the district attorney's investigator to testify about pre-trial interviews he had with the witnesses. She stated that the victim and the woman made a number of inconsistent statements during these interviews with the investigator. After being examined by the attorneys for the defense and prosecution, a juror submitted a written question to the court asking how frequently witnesses change their stories or make inconsistent statements. The question asked:

Roughly what percentage of reports that you have taken in your career reflect some inconsistencies from witnesses, i.e., how common is it for witnesses to add or subtract information from their original statements?

Pursuant to the procedures set forth by the pilot project guidelines, a bench conference was held where defense counsel objected to the juror's question. First the defense reasserted its general objection to jurors asking questions and second the defense argued that the question was not relevant. The prosecution did not comment on the objection. The court overruled defense counsel's objection and asked the question. The investigator responded that people do change their stories and that individuals involved in domestic violence cases are more likely to change their story than in other situations. She said:

It probably depends on the type of case. Domestic violence, it probably happens more so than your vehicular homicide or your vehicular assault case or a DUI or something. I hadn't really thought about that. . . .
I'm trying to think percentage-wise about how many percentages of people would change their story. It's a high percentage. I don't think it's up to 50 percent, but I hadn't thought about how many people change. But it's probably more than 10 percent. Somewhere maybe even more than 20 percent, but you know, that's probably the best I can do. Sorry.

Medina appealed her conviction and in an unpublished opinion the court of appeals affirmed. Medina, slip op. Medina argued that allowing jurors to question witnesses undermined her right to a fair trial. The court of appeals, however, followed other decisions of that court which held that questions from the jury do not violate a defendant's right to a fair trial. It also held that this particular question did not prejudice the defendant and, if anything, it helped the defendant's case because it showed that the testimony of the main witnesses in this case, the victim and his new girlfriend, may be unreliable. Medina, slip op. at 6-7.

We granted certiorari to review the decision of the court of appeals.3

B. Philip Moses

Philip Moses was at his place of work, a car dealership in Aurora, Colorado, when two police officers arrived to arrest him for a municipal violation. Moses was seated in his car and when the officers approached, he put his car in reverse and backed out of his parking space. One of the officers approached the car and Moses accelerated forward, hit the officer with the vehicle, and knocked him to the ground. Moses drove off and was stopped by a police roadblock where he got out of his car and fled on foot. Law enforcement then found Moses hiding in some bushes a short time later and arrested him.

Moses was charged with first degree assault on a peace officer, felony menacing, and mandatory sentencing for a crime of violence. Early in the trial, the court overruled defense counsel's general objection to the practice of allowing jurors to ask questions and allowed the jury to ask questions through the court of the various witnesses according to the terms of the pilot project. The record in this case contains seventeen written questions from the jury with some containing multiple sub-questions. Four of the written questions were denied by the trial court. Not all of the bench conferences were held on the record.4

After the second witness was called, jurors submitted several written questions to the court. Counsel approached the bench to discuss the admissibility of the jurors' questions. Before discussing the questions, Moses's attorney stated to the court that the defendant was able to hear the attorneys and the court at the first bench conference where the...

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