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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit decides one Indiana case today, a reversal

In Virgil Hall, II v. Michael Zenk, Sup. (ND Ind., DeGuilio), a 29-page opinion, Circuit Judge Flaum writes:

In February 2001, Virgil Hall III was convicted in an Indiana state court of murdering his stepson. Shortly after his verdict came down, Hall discovered that one of the jurors in his case had a son that was a fellow inmate of his. Hall further learned that before his trial, the juror’s son informed the juror that Hall was likely innocent, but during the trial, the juror found out that his son and several co-inmates changed their mind about Hall, and thought him guilty. The juror relayed this extraneous information to several jurors. Upon making these discoveries, Hall filed a motion to correct error, arguing that he was not afforded an impartial jury that decided his case strictly upon the evidence presented. The state court rejected Hall’s motion, and Hall was further denied at the appellate level on direct appeal. After seeking collateral relief in Indiana to no avail, Hall filed a habeas petition in the Northern District of Indiana, arguing, inter alia, that the State should have carried the burden of proving that the extraneous information that reached his jury was not prejudicial. The district court granted Hall’s habeas petition based on our precedent of Wisehart v. Davis, 408 F.3d 321 (7th Cir. 2005), and the State now appeals. For the following reasons, we vacate the ruling of the district court and remand for further proceedings. * * *

On the limited record that we have before us, it is clear that Hall has provided enough of a factual foundation, absent any countervailing evidence, to suggest that he was prejudiced by the information acquired and shared by Juror Daniels. Through affidavits, Hall proved that highly prejudicial information about the ultimate question in his criminal case reached several members of his jury. This, with no further information about the case, gives us “grave doubt as to the harmlessness” of such an intrusion upon Hall’s jury. See Basinger, 635 F.3d at 1052 (quoting O’Neal, 513 U.S. at 445). But in deciding whether extraneous information that reached the jury was likely to have prejudiced a defendant, there is more to consider than just the nature of the extraneous information; a court may also consider, among other things, “the power of [any] curative instructions,” Warner, 498 F.3d at 681, and the strength of the legitimate evidence presented by the State, cf. Haugh, 949 F.2d at 919 (considering the fact that the defendant’s trial was “very close” in deciding whether there was a reasonable probability of prejudice). See also McNair v. Campbell, 416 F.3d 1291, 1307-08 (11th Cir. 2005) (“[T]he factors to be considered include the heavy burden on the State, the nature of the extrinsic evidence, how the evidence reached the jury, and the strength of the State’s case.”). If, hypothetically, the legitimate evidence presented by the State in a habeas petitioner’s case was overwhelming, and the trial judge in such a case gave a stern pre-verdict warning to the jurors to only consider facts that were presented during trial, concerns about the prejudicial impact of extraneous information might be lessened.

As for Hall’s trial, this is information that we do not have and, due to our appellate status, cannot obtain. Thus, while we agree with the district court that the Court of Appeals of Indiana acted contrary to clearly established federal law, we are uncertain as to whether he was actually prejudiced by the state courts’ constitutional error, given the dearth of information before us. It may be a significant challenge for the State to convince the district court that such highly prejudicial information might not have had an impact on the jury’s verdict, but this is a matter better addressed by a trial court. We therefore must vacate the district court’s grant of Hall’s habeas petition and remand to the district court. It is there that the State will have an opportunity to show, despite the strong evidence of prejudice already presented by Hall, that countervailing facts would have alleviated concerns of a prejudiced jury.

For the reasons stated, we REVERSE the judgement of the district court and REMAND for a hearing to determine whether Hall was prejudiced by extraneous information that reached his jury.

ILB: Here is the August 14, 2009 Court of Appeals opinion (initially NFP) in Hall, III.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 29, 2012 03:14 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions