Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Summary 2011 WY 147

Summary of Decision October 25, 2011

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Summaries are prepared by Law Librarians and are not official statements of the Wyoming Supreme Court

Case Name:  Benjamin v. State of Wyo.

Citation:  2011 WY 147

Docket Number:  S-10-0204

Appeal from the District Court of Johnson County, The Honorable John G. Fenn, Judge

Representing Appellant (Defendant):  Diane M. Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson, Appellate Counsel.  Argument by Ms. Olson.

Representing Appellee (Plaintiff):  Bruce A. Salzburg, Attorney General; Terry L. Armitage, Deputy Attorney General; D. Michael Pauling, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Leda M. Pojman, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Stewart M. Young, Special Assistant Attorney General.  Argument by Mr. Young.

Date of Decision: October 25, 2011

Facts:  Appellant shot and killed the victim, her estranged husband, at her home.  The relevant events of that day began in the morning, when Appellant sent a text message to her husband, from whom she was separated and was soon to be divorced, asking whether he was coming to pick up their daughter.  Appellant knew that her daughter was at a friend’s house, but proceeded to leave numerous voicemails and text messages for her husband.  When the victim called to say he was on his way, Appellant told him that their daughter no longer wanted to go fishing.  The victim arrived a few minutes after this conversation.  At some point Appellant grabbed a pistol, and the victim was shot by Appellant.  At some point a glass shower door was shattered. The victim died approximately an hour after arriving.  Appellant turned herself in approximately 18 hours later.

Appellant was charged with first degree murder.  The State argued at trial that Appellant had purposely lured the victim to her home under the false pretense that their daughter was waiting for him.  It argued that this was a premeditated, purposeful, and malicious effort to harm the victim.  The State also presented evidence that contradicted Appellant’s version of the shooting, specifically Appellant’s version that her husband was shot while grabbing the pistol, and that the shower door had been shattered by an elbow. The state’s evidence indicated that the victim was shot at a distance and the shower door was shattered by a bullet.

Appellant never denied that she had shot the victim, but asserted that she had done so in self-defense.  Anticipating Appellant’s claim that she was a victim of domestic abuse, the State offered testimony indicating that she was actually the aggressor in the relationship.   

The jury acquitted Appellant on the charge of first degree murder, but also rejected her claim of self-defense, finding her guilty of the lesser included offense of second degree murder.  The district court sentenced her to twenty to thirty years in prison.  Appellant challenged her conviction in this appeal.

Issues:  1) Whether the trial court erred in not dismissing juror Blaney; 2) Whether the trial court erred in refusing Appellant’s proposed jury instructions G and H; 3) Whether the trial court erred in denying Appellant’s post-trial motion for judgment of acquittal; and 4) Whether reversible prosecutorial misconduct occurred.

Holdings:  Affirmed. 

As to the first issue, during voir dire, a potential juror was identified as the wife of as a possible rebuttable witness for the State.  Neither side exercised a peremptory challenge, and she was seated on the jury.  At the end of the day, and outside of the presence of the jury, the district court again raised the issue of the juror’s relationship to a listed witness.  Defense counsel confirmed the decision not to challenge.  Defense counsel later asked to have her removed from the jury, but the district court denied the request.  Appellant claims that the juror’s presence on the jury impinged upon her constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial, but did not contend that the juror was actually biased.  Instead, Appellant claimed that the juror should have been removed from the jury on the basis of implied bias.  The Court held from prior case law that not every question involving implied bias is subject to de novo review on appeal. The proper standard of review must be adapted to fit the context in which the question is presented.  Accordingly, The Court found here that Appellant had waived her implied bias objection during voir dire.  The Court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Appellant’s request, late in the course of the trial, having concluded that the circumstances had not changed sufficiently to compel the removal of the juror.
As to the second issue, the Court observed that the “Eagan Rule” applies only if the witness’s “credibility has not been impeached” and “is not inconsistent with the facts and circumstances shown.”  The Court found that the rule did not apply in Appellant’s case, and the district court did not err in refusing the “Eagan Rule” instructions she proposed.

As to the third issue, Appellant claimed that the State failed to prove that she did not act in self-defense because it presented “no evidence of [her] state of mind at the time of the shooting.”  The Court’s review of the record confirmed Appellant’s claim that the State presented no direct evidence of her state of mind at the time of the shooting.  However, the Court found that the State provided sufficient evidence for a jury to make reasonable inferences about Appellant’s state of mind.  It provided an adequate basis for the jury to reject Appellant’s testimony that she believed she was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm at the time of the shooting.  The Court held that the district court did not err in denying Appellant’s motion for a judgment of acquittal. 

As to the last issue, the Court found that individually and collectively, the instances pointed out by Appellant did not constitute prosecutorial misconduct.

J. Burke delivered the opinion for the court.

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