Landmark Decision in Erickson Dimas-Martinez

9 12 2011

While it was an uneventful week for the Court of Appeals, it was a huge week for the Arkansas Supreme Court.  Although not important in the criminal world, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s finding that the punitive damages cap was unconstitutional.  However, the truly important case decided was Erickson Dimas-Martinez v. State.

This was an appeal from a death sentence, which I would argue plays a large role in the court’s decision to reverse although the court never explicitly says so.  From oral argument it appeared the real issue was the Caldwell violation where the trial judge repeatedly stated that the Arkansas Supreme Court would review the decision with a fine-toothed comb.  However, in Justice Corbin’s opinion he chose not to address that issue because the case was reversed on other grounds and because the trial judge has since retired Corbin did not feel the issue would arise again.

The issue that ruled the day, and has since created international buzz, deals with juror misconduct and the failure of the trial judge to declare a mistrial or replace the juror with an alternate.  There was one juror who slept through part of the trial and another who tweeted during the trial and deliberations.  The juror who slept was supposedly only out for five minutes of technical testimony.  The tweeting juror allegedly never corresponded with anyone.  Therefore, the State argued that because there was nothing “important” missed by the sleeping juror and there was no back and forth in the tweets there could not be a showing of prejudice.  Justice Corbin ruled that because the two jurors so adamantly disobeyed the judge’s instructions it could be presumed that they were not going to follow any of his instructions, which deprived the defendant of a fair trial.

This decision sets a very impressive precedent that should heavily impact trial judges in the future.  However, while trial judges are going to focus on taking away cell phones or monitoring jurors closer, the real focus needs to be on trial judges recognizing when a juror is not following or is not capable of following his instructions.  It was not the sleeping or tweeting that got the case remanded for a new trial, it was the simple fact that the judge recognized they were not following his instructions and failed to replace them with jurors who would take their job seriously.

As mentioned in a previous post, Janice Vaugn’s performance at oral argument was far superior to the performance of the Assistant Attorney General, Eileen Harrison.  While it likely did not influence the Court’s ultimate decision, Ms. Harrison’s claims at oral argument that as long the juror heard the majority of the testimony there is no problem, and that the tweeting juror actually did not defy any of the judge’s orders, certainly reinforced that the Court was deciding for the correct party.


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