Pleasant Grove City v. Terry, 102920 UTSC, 20160092

Docket Nº20160092
Opinion JudgeHimonas, Justice
Party NamePleasant Grove City, Appellee, v. Keith Terry, Appellant.
AttorneyChristine M. Petersen, Summer D. Shelton, Michael J. Scott, Pleasant Grove, for appellee Richard A. Roberts, Sean M. Petersen, Jacob S. Gunter, Provo, for appellant
Judge PanelJustice Himonas authored the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Durrant and Justice Pearce joined. Justice Petersen authored a dissenting opinion in which Associate Chief Justice Lee joined. Justice Petersen, dissenting:
Case DateOctober 29, 2020
CourtSupreme Court of Utah

2020 UT 69

Pleasant Grove City, Appellee,

v.

Keith Terry, Appellant.

No. 20160092

Supreme Court of Utah

October 29, 2020

Heard October 11, 2018

On Certification from the Utah Court of Appeals

Fourth District, Provo The Honorable Thomas Low Case No. 141101126

Christine M. Petersen, Summer D. Shelton, Michael J. Scott, Pleasant Grove, for appellee

Richard A. Roberts, Sean M. Petersen, Jacob S. Gunter, Provo, for appellant

Justice Himonas authored the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Durrant and Justice Pearce joined.

Justice Petersen authored a dissenting opinion in which Associate Chief Justice Lee joined.

OPINION

Himonas, Justice

INTRODUCTION

¶1 Our deference to the jury's decision-making does not extend to verdicts that are legally impossible. This case presents such a situation. Keith Terry's conviction on the offense of domestic violence in the presence of a child-a legal impossibility given his acquittal on the offense predicating it, domestic violence assault-is anathema to the laws of an enlightened, civilized society. We accordingly use our constitutionally granted supervisory authority to invalidate legally impossible verdicts, such as the one the jury reached here, and vacate Terry's conviction.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Terry was picking up his children from school one afternoon in his Jeep. After his son got in the passenger seat, and while he waited for his daughter, Terry's ex-wife confronted him and argued that it was not his turn to pick up the children. The two quarreled, and at some point, Terry's ex-wife approached the passenger side of the Jeep. She claimed it was to hug her son through the Jeep's open window and calm him down because the child had been upset by the couple's fighting. Then, according to her, Terry punched her in the mouth. Terry, on the other hand, claimed that his ex-wife opened the passenger-side door, and all he did was put his arms around his son to keep him in the Jeep. Terry denied ever striking his ex-wife and said that it was she who started hitting him on his hands and arms.

¶3 Following this altercation, Terry's ex-wife began to shout repeatedly, "He hit me!" and backed away from the vehicle. At that point, Terry saw an unknown man running toward him, so he started driving. The man, whom Terry later discovered to be his ex-wife's boyfriend, chased Terry's Jeep and eventually jumped into it through the open passenger-side window. Terry drove several blocks erratically in an attempt to shake the man off the vehicle. Unsuccessful, Terry called the police and drove the vehicle to a nearby police station, all while the man was hanging halfway out the passenger-side window.

¶4 Relevant here, Pleasant Grove City charged Terry with one count of domestic violence assault and one count of commission of domestic violence in the presence of a child. After trial, the jury initially deadlocked, but reached a verdict after the judge had them further deliberate. The jury convicted Terry on the offense of commission of domestic violence in the presence of a child, but acquitted him of the offense that predicated the conviction, domestic violence assault.1

¶5 The trial judge was baffled by this outcome. He explained to the parties that although he had never had to deal with such a situation, he believed that "if [the jury] had reasonable doubt as to [domestic violence assault, the predicate offense], then there [had] to be reasonable doubt as to [domestic violence in the presence of a child, the compound offense]." After further research (during a short recess), however, the trial judge was "surprised" to find that there was no case supporting his intuition and accordingly did not intervene in the verdict. Following the trial court's conclusion and before sentencing, Terry filed a motion to arrest judgment and to strike the inconsistent jury verdict, which had acquitted him on the predicate offense of domestic violence assault, but convicted him of the compound offense of domestic violence in the presence of a child. The trial court denied the motion and sentenced Terry.

¶6 Terry timely appealed the judgment and the trial court's order denying his motion. The court of appeals certified the case to this court, explaining that it "presents an important first impression question in the context of predicate and compound offenses." We exercise jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(b).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶7 This is the first time we have ever addressed the appropriate standard of review for a legally impossible verdict. We hold that this is a question of law, which we review for correctness. State v. Newton, 2020 UT 24, ¶ 16, 466 P.3d 135.

¶8 This court has never set out the standard of review for legally impossible verdicts. We have, however, articulated a standard of review for "inconsistent verdicts." State v. Stewart, 729 P.2d 610, 613 (Utah 1986) (per curiam) (holding that appellate courts review inconsistent verdicts only for "insufficient evidence to support the guilty verdict"). But "the term 'inconsistent verdicts' is often used in an imprecise manner and may include a wide variety of related, but nonetheless distinct, problems." State v. Halstead, 791 N.W.2d 805, 807 (Iowa 2010); see also State v. Stewart (Md Stewart), 211 A.3d 371, 375 n1 (Md 2019) (McDonald, J, concurring) (identifying several "categories of inconsistent verdicts"). Indeed, the term "inconsistent verdicts" encompasses at least two different types of verdicts: factually inconsistent verdicts and legally impossible verdicts (sometimes known as legally inconsistent verdicts). Stewart dealt with factually inconsistent verdicts and does not control the question of the standard of review here because here we have a legally impossible verdict.2 And legally impossible verdicts should be treated differently than factually inconsistent verdicts for two reasons.

¶9 First, with factually inconsistent verdicts, because the question is centered on the evaluation of evidence, it may make sense not to overturn a jury's verdict "unless reasonable minds could not rationally have arrived at a verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt based on the law and on the evidence presented." State v. Gibson, 2016 UT App 15, ¶ 16, 366 P.3d 876 (citation omitted). Stewart presents a classic example. There, multiple defendants were tried together for a stabbing death; some were acquitted, and some, including Stewart, were convicted. 729 P.2d at 611. As we explain in more detail below, see infra ¶¶ 39-40, we held that there was an evidentiary basis to conclude "that the jury believed those portions of the evidence . . . unfavorable to [Stewart] and the evidence favorable to [the] other defendants." Id. at 614. Indeed, "testimony showed that Stewart carried the only knife capable of causing the fatal stab wound." Id. at 612. But with legally impossible verdicts in which a defendant is acquitted on the predicate offense but convicted on the compound offense, this calculation is self-solving: reasonable minds cannot rationally arrive at a guilty verdict for a compound offense when the acquittal on the predicate offense negates a necessary element of such conviction. And unlike with factually inconsistent verdicts, a "reviewing court, distanced from a jury, is equipped to evaluate independently the legal elements of charged crimes and make a determination as to whether the verdicts are compatible with these elements." McNeal v. State, 44 A.3d 982, 993 (Md. 2012).

¶10 Second, one of the reasons we review factually inconsistent verdicts only for sufficiency of evidence is that the defendant "receives 'the benefit of . . . acquittal on the counts on which [the defendant] was acquitted' and 'accept[s] the burden of conviction on the count[] on which the jury convicted.'" United States v. Petit Frere, 334 Fed.Appx. 231, 238 (11th Cir. 2009) (third and fourth alterations in original) (quoting United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57, 69 (1984)). This premise makes no sense when it comes to legally impossible verdicts in which a defendant is acquitted on the predicate offense but convicted on the compound offense. It would require an appellate court to pretend that the same jury, looking at the same evidence, acquitted the defendant of the predicate offense standing alone, but simultaneously found the defendant guilty of the predicate offense as part of the compound offense-essentially asking an appellate court to conclude that "the same . . . element or elements of each crime were found both to exist and not to exist." Price v. State, 949 A.2d 619, 636 (Md. 2008) (Harrell, J., concurring); see also McNeal, 44 A.3d at 984 (adopting Justice Harrell's concurrence in Price). We do not engage in such theatrics.

¶11 For these reasons, we do not apply Stewart's sufficiency-of-the-evidence standard to legally impossible verdicts in which a defendant is acquitted on the predicate offense but convicted on the compound offense. Unlike with factually inconsistent verdicts, these legally impossible verdicts involve a question of law-"the consequence of a jury verdict that convicts the defendant of a compound [offense] yet acquits the defendant on the only predicate [offense] in the case as instructed by the court." Halstead, 791 N.W.2d at 807 (footnote omitted); see also Brown v. State, 959 So.2d 218, 220 (Fla. 2007) ("An inconsistent verdicts claim presents a pure question of law"); Givens v. State, 144 A.3d 717, 725 (Md. 2016) ("An appellate court reviews without deference a trial court's ruling on a motion to strike a guilty verdict that is allegedly inconsistent with a not-guilty verdict," because it presents "a question of law." (citation omitted)). We review questions of law for correctness. See...

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