Ramirez v. State

CourtSupreme Court of Indiana
Citation7 N.E.3d 933
Docket NumberNo. 45S05–1305–CR–331.,45S05–1305–CR–331.
PartiesErnesto Roberto RAMIREZ, Appellant (Defendant), v. STATE of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff).
Decision Date29 April 2014

7 N.E.3d 933

Ernesto Roberto RAMIREZ, Appellant (Defendant),
STATE of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff).

No. 45S05–1305–CR–331.

Supreme Court of Indiana.

April 29, 2014.

[7 N.E.3d 934]

Marce Gonzalez, Jr., Dyer, IN, for Appellant.

Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana, James B. Martin, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, IN, for Appellee.

On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 45A05–1204–CR–224

RUSH, Justice.

Every accused has a constitutionally protected right to an impartial jury. We have long recognized that even one juror's unauthorized contacts and communications may poison the entire jury, but we rely upon trial courts to decide whether a mistrial is the cure. Unfortunately, we have given trial courts inconsistent guidance on both how to make this determination and whether the accused must prove prejudice. Today we clarify our precedent: Defendants are entitled to a rebuttable presumption of prejudice when they can show by a preponderance of the evidence that an unauthorized, extra-judicial contact or communication with jurors occurred, and that the contact or communication pertained to the matter before the jury.

[7 N.E.3d 935]

In this case, though, Ernesto Ramirez failed to prove that a juror's extraneous contact and communications related to his case. As a result, he was not entitled to a presumption of prejudice, and the trial court properly denied his motion for mistrial. We also summarily affirm Ramirez's sentence.

Background and Procedural History

Five days into Ramirez's trial for murder and criminal gang activity, Juror 282 wrote a note to the trial court about an incident at her home the night before: “I was out to eat and my neighbor called me and said that the neighbor below me heard gunshots upstairs and running around and told them I was a jury member in a case.” She also told the other jurors of this incident. The trial court excused Juror 282 from the jury after she said that she could not render an impartial verdict. Ramirez moved for a mistrial, arguing that Juror 282's disclosure of the incident to the other jurors “taint[ed] the whole jury” and prevented a “fair trial.” After interviewing all the jurors outside the presence of the jury with counsel present, the trial court denied Ramirez's motion, finding that Juror 282's incident was coincidental and the jury could remain impartial.

The jury found Ramirez guilty of murder and criminal gang activity, but in a second phase acquitted him of a criminal gang enhancement. The trial court sentenced him to sixty-two years for murder and two years for criminal gang activity, served consecutively. Ramirez appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in refusing to grant a mistrial and that his sixty-two year murder sentence was inappropriate. We will discuss additional facts as needed.

Standard of Review

A trial court is in the best position to evaluate whether a mistrial is warranted because it can assess first-hand all relevant facts and circumstances and their impact on the jury. See Kelley v. State, 555 N.E.2d 140, 141 (Ind.1990). We therefore review denial of a motion for mistrial only for abuse of discretion. Gregory v. State, 540 N.E.2d 585, 589 (Ind.1989). However, the correct legal standard for a mistrial is a pure question of law, which we review de novo. See Hartman v. State, 988 N.E.2d 785, 788 (Ind.2013).

Discussion and Decision

Ramirez argues the trial court failed to presume prejudice from the alleged jury taint under Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227, 74 S.Ct. 450, 98 L.Ed. 654 (1954), applied the wrong mistrial standard under Indiana precedent, and improperly relied upon juror testimony in refusing to grant a mistrial. The Court of Appeals' memorandum decision correctly held that the trial court properly denied a mistrial. But in reaching that conclusion, the Court of Appeals cited three different mistrial standards and stated, “regardless of which standard is applied, Ramirez is not entitled to a new trial.” Ramirez v. State, No. 45A05–1204–CR–224, slip op. at 7, 984 N.E.2d 258 (Ind.Ct.App. February 19, 2013). We took the Court of Appeals' approach as an indication that our precedent on suspected jury taint has been inconsistent, and we granted transfer to clarify. 987 N.E.2d 521 (Ind.2013).

Federal and Indiana precedent has narrowed the presumption of prejudice to apply in cases where defendants show more than just potential taint—but some Indiana precedent, including our own, has applied that presumption inconsistently. We now clarify its precise scope, and reiterate the proper process for trial courts to address jury taint in the courtroom. We hold that no presumption applies in Ramirez's case, and that the trial court's approach in addressing his allegation of jury

[7 N.E.3d 936]

taint was correct. On all other issues, we summarily affirm the Court of Appeals. Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A)(2).

I. Historical Development of the Presumption of Prejudice in Jury Taint Cases.

An impartial jury is the cornerstone of a fair trial, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and Article 1, Section 13 of our Indiana Constitution. See Turner v. State of Louisiana, 379 U.S. 466, 472, 85 S.Ct. 546, 13 L.Ed.2d 424 (1965); Caruthers v. State, 926 N.E.2d 1016, 1020 (Ind.2010). To preserve impartiality and prevent taint, we prohibit unauthorized contacts and communications with jurors. Yet no trial is perfect, and we have long held that “[w]hile courts have a duty to ensure an impartial jury ... jurors need not be absolutely insulated from all extraneous influences....” Id. at 1021 (quoting Lindsey v. State, 260 Ind. 351, 356, 295 N.E.2d 819, 823 (1973)). We therefore entrust trial courts with the difficult responsibility of discerning when extraneous influences become irreparable taint warranting a new trial. See id.

Federal precedent for making that determination has narrowed over time. The United States Supreme Court once held that “[i]n a criminal case, any private communication, contact, or tampering, directly or indirectly, with a juror during a trial about the matter pending before the jury is, for obvious reasons, deemed presumptively prejudicial....” Remmer, 347 U.S. at 229, 74 S.Ct. 450. That presumption was “not conclusive, but the burden rest[ed] heavily upon the Government to establish, after notice to and hearing of the defendant, that such contact with the juror was harmless to the defendant.” Id.Remmer applied this rule to find presumptive prejudice when a defendant discovered that someone had offered to bribe one of his jurors in return for a guilty verdict. Id. at 228, 74 S.Ct. 450. But since Remmer was decided in 1954, the scope of the presumption has narrowed considerably. In Smith v. Phillips, the Court held that a defendant had the burden of proving prejudice, suggesting the presumption was either extremely narrow or nonexistent. 455 U.S. 209, 215, 102 S.Ct. 940, 71 L.Ed.2d 78 (1982). The Court later clarified “[t]here may be cases where an intrusion should be presumed prejudicial,” United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 739, 113 S.Ct. 1770, 123 L.Ed.2d 508 (1993), but it has never returned to Remmer's broad presumption. The federal circuits have recognized this evolution, and most have applied a narrower presumption of prejudice than what Justice Sherman Minton articulated in Remmer.1

Indiana, likewise, has historically applied a presumption of prejudice narrower than Remmer's original formulation. In Currin v. State, we said that “a rebuttable presumption

[7 N.E.3d 937]

of prejudice arises from juror misconduct involving out-of-court communications with unauthorized persons”—but that “such misconduct must be based on proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, that an extra-judicial contact or communication occurred, and that it pertained to a matter pending before the jury.” 497 N.E.2d 1045, 1046 (Ind.1986). We articulated the presumption of prejudice in Currin without any reference to Remmer.Currin's formulation was the synthesis of a long line of Indiana cases holding that defendants must make a preliminary showing that jury taint actually occurred before a judge would consider whether any taint had irreparably prejudiced the jury. See, e.g., Fox v. State, 457 N.E.2d 1088, 1093–94 (Ind.1984); Brown v. State, 245 Ind. 604, 607, 201 N.E.2d 281, 283 (1964); Barker v. State, 238 Ind. 271, 278, 150 N.E.2d 680, 684–84 (1958). Almost fifty years before Remmer was decided, Indiana courts would only entertain allegations of impermissible jury taint “when such a state of facts is shown that it may fairly be presumed therefrom that the defendant's rights were prejudiced.” Trombley v. State, 167 Ind. 231, 78 N.E. 976, 977 (1906).

Alongside the presumption of prejudice analysis synthesized in Currin, Indiana courts have applied an irrebuttable presumption of prejudice aimed at identifying egregious “juror conduct with witnesses occurring contemporaneous to the trial proceeding. May v. State, 716 N.E.2d 419, 422 (Ind.1999). We have referred to such conduct as “prima facie prejudicial.” We first used that phrase to describe jury taint in Woods v. State, 233 Ind. 320, 324, 119 N.E.2d 558, 561 (1954), where three state witnesses—two police officers and the sheriff—repeatedly visited jury members in a room where the jury congregated during recesses and intermissions. Id. at 323, 119 N.E.2d at 560. Likewise, in Kelley, the jury was tainted after three jurors ate lunch with the State's sole witness, and the witness was overheard stating “I seen him do it,” and one of the jurors responded, “I could see him do that.” 555 N.E.2d at 141. And in May, we granted a new trial after a juror's conversation with a witness ended with an invitation for the juror to come over to the witness's house to watch a pay-per-view boxing match. 716 N.E.2d at 420.

We clarified in May that the phrase “prima facie prejudicial” used previously in Woods and Kelley referred to “extra-judicial juror conduct ... fundamentally harmful...

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1 books & journal articles
    • United States
    • Case Western Reserve Law Review Vol. 72 No. 2, December 2021
    • December 22, 2021
    ...("Defendants seeking a mistrial for suspected jury taint are entitled to the presumption of prejudice...." (quoting Ramirez v. State, 7 N.E.3d 933, 939 (Ind. 2014))). (283.) State v. Christensen, 929 N.W.2d 646, 678 (Iowa 2019) ("[T]he Remmertype presumption is for 'more than innocuous inte......

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