Friday, December 30, 2011

Summary 2011 WY 171

Summary of Decision December 30, 2011

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

Case Name: Jealous v. State

Citation: 2011 WY 171

Docket Number: S-11-0097


Appeal from the District Court of Fremont County, Honorable Norman E. Young, Judge

Representing Appellant (Defendant): Diane Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson, Appellant Counsel; Kirk A. Morgan, Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel; Wyoming Public Defender Program.

Representing Appellee (Plaintiff): Gregory A. Phillips, Wyoming Attorney General; Terry L. Armitage, Deputy Attorney General; D. Michael Pauling, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Justin A. Daraie, Assistant Attorney General.

Date of Decision: December 30, 2011

Facts: Appellant appeals his conviction for aggravated assault and battery, alleging that the district court committed reversible error in failing to properly instruct the jury on the elements of the crime.

Issues: Whether reversible error occurred when the trial court issued a confusing and misleading jury instruction on the elements of aggravated assault and battery, which was not in accordance with Wyoming law. Whether the district court erred in not defining, in response to a jury question, the terms “intentionally,” “knowingly,” and “recklessly.” Whether the district court erroneously instructed the jury that it could find him guilty on any or all of the theories of guilt it found applicable to the case.

Holdings: A trial court has a duty to instruct a jury regarding the general principles of law applicable to the case. Jury instructions will be reviewed as a whole and will not single out and consider in isolation individual instructions or parts thereof. The test for determining whether a jury has been properly instructed on the necessary elements of the crime is whether the instructions leave no doubt as to the circumstances under which the crime can be found to have been committed.

Appellant did not object at trial to the district court’s instructions or its failure to define the terms at issue. Consequently, the review of the alleged errors is limited to the noticing of plain error. Under the plain error doctrine, Appellant must establish, by reference to the record, a violation of a clear and unequivocal rule of law in a clear and obvious, not merely arguable, way and that the violation adversely affected a substantial right resulting in material prejudice. To establish material prejudice, Appellant must show a reasonable possibility exists that he would have received a more favorable verdict in the absence of the errors

Appellant’ first complaint of error focuses on the instruction which informed the jury of the elements of the charged crime. As Appellant correctly points out, the instruction as given separated the phrase “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life” from “recklessly,” although that phrase was meant to modify only “recklessly.” Admittedly, by formatting the instruction as it did, the district court gave the impression that the circumstance addressed in element six modified all three mental elements found in element five. However, this formatting mistake does not mean that the instructions, when viewed as a whole, fail to appropriately state the relevant law to the jury or must have so confused the jury regarding the law that Appellant was materially prejudiced. An additional instruction mirrored the language of the aggravated assault and battery statute and a third instruction told the jury, in pertinent part, that: “If in these instructions any rule, direction or idea is stated in varying ways, no emphasis thereon is intended, and none must be inferred by you. For that reason, you are not to single out any certain sentence, or any individual point or instruction, and ignore the others, but you are to consider all the instructions as a whole, and are to regard each in the light of all the others.” Furthermore, the district court gave the jury a special verdict form which parsed out the three alternative mental states of the crime and notably combined the modifying phrase “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life” only with the “recklessly” mental element.

Considering the special verdict form in conjunction with all the jury instructions given, the jury was not misled or confused as to the elements of the charged crime upon which it rested its guilty verdict. Notwithstanding the drafting defects in the challenged instruction, that instruction otherwise accurately set forth the essential mental elements of the crime of aggravated assault and battery with which Appellant was charged. Additionally, other instructions and the special verdict form correctly stated the law and clarified that the modifying phrase applied solely to “recklessly,” thereby correcting any misperception which may have been caused by the challenged instruction. Under the circumstances, there is no plain error.

A trial court has no obligation to define a statutory term unless it has a technical meaning different from its ordinary meaning that a jury would misunderstand its import without further explanation. Employing that rule, it has previously been determined that the terms “knowingly” and “intentionally” do not have a technical meanings under the law so as to require an instruction defining those terms. In light of this authority, it is clear the district court’s failure to define “knowingly” and “intentionally” was not plain error. The question now becomes whether the district court committed plain error by not defining “recklessly.” Subsumed in Appellant’ argument on this point is a contention that the district court should have also instructed the jury on the meaning of the phrase “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” While such instructions should have been given, that the failure to do so did not amount to plain error inasmuch as the evidence supports the jury’s guilty verdict under the alternative elements of intentionally and knowingly causing serious bodily injury. Given the jury’s verdict, prejudice cannot be established.

Appellant lastly claims the district court plainly erred in telling the jury that, to the extent it found them applicable to the case, it could mark any or all of the alternative mental states listed on the special verdict form. Appellant contends, by giving this instruction, the district court improperly permitted the jury to render what he maintains is an inconsistent verdict. Appellant, however, has not demonstrated that the district court’s actions obviously, and not merely arguably, violated a clear and unequivocal rule of law. Appellant cites no Wyoming or federal authority to support his position. Although he cites to one court that has advanced a similar position, the majority of courts do not follow this rule. Instead, the majority of jurisdictions follow the rule that inconsistencies in the verdict handed down in a single prosecution will not entitle the defendant to reversal of his conviction. Wyoming has long followed the general rule that consistency in a jury’s verdict is not required. Furthermore, there is no inconsistency in finding that Appellant acted recklessly while also finding that he acted intentionally and knowingly. If the evidence supports a finding that Appellant intentionally and knowingly inflicted serious injury, then it no less establishes that he acted recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. Therefore, it was not plain error for the district court to instruct the jury that it could base its verdict on any and all proven theories of guilt

The Judgment and Sentence of the district court is affirmed.

J. Golden delivered the opinion for the court.

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