State v. Giroux

Decision Date14 April 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-154,88-154
Citation561 A.2d 403,151 Vt. 361
CourtVermont Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Vermont v. Raymond GIROUX, Sr.

John Churchill, Chittenden County Deputy State's Atty., Burlington, and Robert Katims, Appellate Atty., Montpelier, for plaintiff-appellee.

Walter M. Morris, Jr., Defender General, and Henry Hinton, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for defendant-appellant.

Before ALLEN, C.J., PECK, DOOLEY and MORSE, JJ., and BARNEY, C.J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned.

MORSE, Justice.

Raymond Giroux was convicted, after a jury trial, of sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl in violation of 13 V.S.A. § 3252(3). * He raises numerous claims of error on appeal. We reverse and remand for a new trial because of error in the court's jury instructions on reasonable doubt. We also reach those other points likely to be raised on remand.

I. Facts

In early August, 1985, defendant's daughter Christina, nine years old, and the alleged victim, were camping out in a tent in the back yard. Christina was unable to get to sleep and asked her father to stay with her for a while. Defendant did so, and Christina soon fell asleep.

Thereafter, according to the complainant, defendant talked to her about how much he loved her and made sexual advances toward her culminating in sexual intercourse. The girl's account included defendant removing her underwear, nightgown and robe and kissing and fondling various parts of her body. She was uncooperative and asked defendant to stop. They spoke in normal to exerted tones. Thereafter defendant and the girl slept. All this allegedly occurred in a three-person tent. Christina testified that she heard nothing, even though she was a light sleeper.

Defendant denied sexually assaulting or making any advances toward the complainant, but did admit to being in the tent at the request of his daughter. He slept for a few hours and left.

Two weeks later the complainant told an older cousin about the episode. She waited because of a fear of defendant who, she claimed, said he would kill her and her family if she reported the incident. The police were called when her parents learned of her story soon thereafter. After an investigation, defendant was charged with the assault and arraigned on December 6, 1985.

In the spring of 1986, defendant left Vermont while charges were pending against him, in violation of bail conditions. He was arrested in Texas several months later and waived extradition to Vermont.

At trial, witnesses testified that complainant had earlier told them that she suspected her mother was having an affair with defendant. Her mother admitted she was having an affair with defendant during July of 1985. The girl also testified, in a vague way, about an incident before the assault when defendant touched her on her breasts, explaining why she feared and disliked him before the night in question. Finally, the police reported remarks made by defendant that the girl was sexually active with boys and that she "regularly hugged and kissed him."

II. Reasonable Doubt

The defense argued that complainant falsely accused defendant because she knew or suspected her mother was having an affair with him and she did not want her parents to divorce. The defense further pointed out the implausibility of her account of being sexually assaulted in a small tent while her companion slept. The State argued that she would not have stuck to her story had it not been true, and portrayed her as not the type and not sophisticated enough to concoct such a devious scheme.

The trial court explained to the jury that it must find the defendant not guilty unless the State overcame the presumption of innocence. Reasonable doubt was explained as a search for the truth, to be "convinced the charge is true." The court went on:

You go through the case, you'll find a doubt. I'm using that as an example. You can assign a reason for it. What does that term mean? It means it's not a doubt that's based on speculation, conjecture. On, what if, what if, what if? What if they asked one more question? Pick on this. You're bound by the case and the strengths and the weaknesses of the case. You go through it. You doubt the truth of the charge and this is the reason why. It's as simple as that. A doubt for which you can assign a reason for. That's what it is.

Another way to put it, it's a confidence. What we're looking for here is a confidence that a juror can leave the jury room convinced that you've done your job correctly. This is a more important matter of life for everyone involved here. All of us have been in experiences in our life where we have been required to make decisions that we would just as soon not make. It's a serious matter. We have done our best in dealing with it. We've investigated the facts as best we can. We used the best reasoning processes and we've come up with what we think is the best resolution of the problem facing us. We are confident. We might not be comfortable, but we're confident we've done the right thing. That's what both sides are looking for here. Confidence in your decision. Has the state proven the case to you beyond a reasonable doubt?

Earlier, the court instructed that "any reasonable doubt that comes in here springs from the evidence. That's what the term means. It's a doubt that springs from the evidence."

The defense objected that the instruction on reasonable doubt did not adequately inform the jury of the standard required to convict and, in particular, that the admonition to search for the truth of the charge did not convey the State's burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. We agree.

The burden of proof in a criminal case is quite simply that a jury cannot convict unless it is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the truth of every element of the crime charged. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 1072-73, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970). Any finding short of that requires a verdict of not guilty. A reasonable doubt on any element of the offense must follow with an acquittal. If this standard is somewhere in the trial court's instructions in this case, its communication to the jury in any meaningful way was lost.

The jury's task is not simply to determine the truth or falsity of the charge, to convict if it is true, acquit if it is false. The jury must acquit even when it thinks the charge is probably true. The instructions here did not effectively tell the jury that the search for truth involved a search for truth beyond a reasonable doubt.

Assuming the jury understood that a reasonable doubt should translate into an acquittal, the court limited reasonable doubts to those which "spring from the evidence." There is nothing in the instructions to intimate that reasonable doubt also may "spring" from the lack of evidence on a point. In addition, we have recently discouraged the use of instructions that require jurors to assign a reason for doubt and that compare the decision to convict with important decisions in one's personal life. State v. Francis, 151 Vt. 296, ----, 561 A.2d 392, 395-97 (1989). The use of this language compounded the overall failure of the instructions.

The error here cannot be deemed harmless. The jury deliberated nearly seven hours in this case where the evidence of guilt was not overwhelming. We cannot conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have convicted defendant given a fair charge on the burden of proof. See State v. Hamlin, 146 Vt. 97, 106, 499 A.2d 45, 52 (1985).

III. The Element of Intent

The defendant maintains that the offense charged includes a mental element, a wrongful intent as opposed to an innocent intent. He argues that wrongful intent should have been included in the information and charged to the jury. The State maintains that the offense of sexual assault with a minor is a strict liability crime.

We need not decide...

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26 cases
  • State v. Carter
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • January 12, 1996
    ...questioned the probative value of such evidence. See State v. Pelican, 160 Vt. 536, 542, 632 A.2d 24, 28 (1993); State v. Giroux, 151 Vt. 361, 366, 561 A.2d 403, 406 (1989); State v. Unwin, 139 Vt. 186, 193, 424 A.2d 251, 255 (1980). Recently, in State v. Perrillo, 162 Vt. 566, 570, 649 A.2......
  • State v. Streich
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • February 17, 1995
    ...court's lengthy charge to the jury. These phrases note that the jury's role is to "seek the truth." Relying on State v. Giroux, 151 Vt. 361, 365, 561 A.2d 403, 406 (1989), he maintains that the inclusion of these phrases caused the jury to lose sight of the prosecution's burden to prove def......
  • State v. Watlington, 13775
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • August 7, 1990
    ...instructions at issue there. See also State v. Thomas, 214 Conn. 118, 570 A.2d 1123 (1990).5 The defendant relies on State v. Giroux, 151 Vt. 361, 561 A.2d 403 (1989). We conclude that Giroux is inapposite. In that case, the trial court, in its instructions to the jury, defined reasonable d......
  • State v. Middleworth, 30850-2-III
    • United States
    • Washington Court of Appeals
    • February 6, 2014
    ...A.2d 175 (1992). Notably, one state—Vermont—has rejected a truth instruction very similar to the instruction here. State v. Giroux, 151 Vt. 361, 363-65, 561 A.2d 403 (1989) (rejecting "convinced the charge is true"). 8. Other federal circuit courts have also criticized and openly discourage......
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