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State v. Dotson

Supreme Court of Louisiana

October 18, 2017

STATE OF LOUISIANA
v.
DERRICK A. DOTSON

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FOURTH CIRCUIT, PARISH OF ORLEANS

          WEIMER, JUSTICE.

         The state's writ application was granted to consider whether the court of appeal erred in reversing defendant's conviction, finding that the trial judge abused his discretion in denying a challenge for cause of a prospective juror. During voir dire, the prospective juror gave an equivocal answer as to whether she could be impartial after indicating her mother had been the victim of a violent crime. The record of the voir dire proceeding is bereft of any information that would clarify the prospective juror's response, and the remainder of her responses during voir dire indicate that she would be impartial. As such, deference should have been afforded by the appellate court to the trial court's ruling on the challenge. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the appellate court is reversed, and this matter is remanded to the appellate court for determination of the remaining issue raised on appeal by defendant.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 1994, K.T. was crossing the street in eastern New Orleans when a man she recognized as someone who had worked with her mother in the past called her to his car. When she walked over, she saw a gun on his lap. He ordered her to get into the car and then drove to a wooded area where he forced K.T. to engage in sexual intercourse. K.T. reported the incident and underwent a sexual assault exam, but the police investigation did not lead to any suspects.

         In 1996, H.B. was at home when a man came to the door and asked to speak to her brother. She recognized the man as someone to whom her brother had previously given money. The man claimed that he wanted to thank H.B.'s brother for the money. Later, when H.B's brother left for work, the man returned and claimed that he was locked out of his house. He asked H.B. to make a telephone call for him, and, when she returned to tell him the number did not work, he forced his way into the house and sexually assaulted her. H.B. reported the crime and underwent a sexual assault examination, but the police investigation did not yield any suspects.

         In 2010, while investigating unsolved rape cases, a detective of the police force searched the national DNA data base (CODIS) and discovered that DNA from both cases matched that of Derrick A. Dotson (defendant). The state subsequently charged defendant with two counts of aggravated rape. The jury found defendant guilty of the 1996 forcible rape of H.B., but could not reach a verdict as to the charge involving K.T. The court sentenced defendant as a third felony offender to life imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.

         The court of appeal majority reversed defendant's conviction, finding the trial court abused its discretion by denying defendant's challenge for cause of a prospective juror after defendant exhausted all of his peremptory challenges. State v. Dotson, 15-0191, p. 8 (La.App. 4 Cir. 12/17/16), 187 So.3d 79, 83-84. At issue was whether the prospective juror, whose mother had been raped and murdered, could be impartial. When asked by the trial court if the circumstances related to her mother's death had any bearing on her ability to be impartial, she stated, "Yes, it might." No direct follow-up questions were asked by the trial court, the state, or the defense as to this particular response. Although the prospective juror was not asked to, and did not, provide any additional insight to this particular response, the appellate court found that "bias, prejudice, or the inability to render judgment according to law can be reasonably implied" from her initial response. Dotson, 15-0191 at 8, 187 So.3d at 84. Accordingly, the trial court was found to have abused its discretion by denying defendant's challenge for cause.

         The state's writ application was granted to determine if the trial court abused its discretion in finding that defendant failed to prove that the prospective juror was not impartial. State v. Dotson, 16-0473 (La. 3/24/17), 216 So.3d 809.

         DISCUSSION

         Louisiana Constitution article I, section 17 guarantees a defendant the "right to full voir dire examination of prospective jurors and to challenge jurors peremptorily." State v. Juniors, 03-2425, p. 7 (La. 6/29/05), 915 So.2d 291, 304. The number of peremptory challenges granted to a defendant in a trial of an offense punishable necessarily by imprisonment at hard labor, such as the one currently before this court, [1] is fixed by law at twelve. See La. Const. art. I, § 17(A); La. C.Cr.P. art. 799.[2] When a defendant uses all twelve of his peremptory challenges, an erroneous ruling by a trial court on a challenge for cause that results in depriving the defendant of a peremptory challenge constitutes a substantial violation of the defendant's constitutional and statutory rights, requiring reversal of the conviction and sentence. Juniors, 03-2425 at 7-8, 915 So.2d at 304; see La. C.Cr.P. art. 921 ("A judgment or ruling shall not be reversed by an appellate court because of any error, defect, irregularity, or variance which does not affect substantial rights of the accused."). Therefore, prejudice is presumed when a challenge for cause has been erroneously denied by a trial court and the defendant exhausts all peremptory challenges statutorily afforded to the defendant.[3] Juniors, 03-2425 at 8, 915 So.2d at 305 (citing State v. Robertson, 92-2660, p. 3 (La. 1/14/94), 630 So.2d 1278, 1280, and State v. Ross, 623 So.2d 643, 644 (La. 1993)). In summary, where all peremptory challenges have been used, as in this case, a defendant need only demonstrate the erroneous denial of a challenge for cause to establish reversible error warranting reversal of a conviction and sentence. See Juniors, 03-2425 at 8, 915 So.2d at 305.

         A defendant may challenge a juror for cause if "[t]he juror is not impartial, whatever the cause of his partiality." La. C.Cr.P. art. 797(2). Additionally, La. C.Cr.P. art. 797(3) provides a defendant may challenge a juror for cause on the ground that "[t]he relationship, whether by blood, marriage, employment, friendship, or enmity between the juror and the defendant, the person injured by the offense, the district attorney, or defense counsel, is such that it is reasonable to conclude that it would influence the juror in arriving at a verdict." A "juror [who] will not accept the law as given to him by the court" may also be challenged for cause by the defendant. See La. C.Cr.P. art. 797(4).

         Voir dire examination of prospective jurors is designed to discover bases for challenges for cause and to secure information for an intelligent exercise of peremptory challenges. State v. Drew, 360 So.2d 500, 513 (La. 1978). The questions propounded are designed to determine any potential adverse influence on the prospective juror's ability to render an impartial verdict. See id. A prospective juror's responses during voir dire cannot be considered in isolation. See State v. Frost, 97-1771, p. 8 (La. 12/1/98), 727 So.2d 417, 426.

         A trial judge is vested with broad discretion in ruling on challenges for cause, and such a ruling is subject to reversal only when a review of the entire voir dire reveals the judge abused his discretion. Robertson, 630 So.2d at 1281. The trial judge's refusal to excuse a prospective juror on the ground he is not impartial is not an abuse of discretion where, after further inquiry or instruction (frequently called "rehabilitation"), the prospective juror has demonstrated a willingness and ability to decide the case impartially according to the law and the evidence. Id.

         During voir dire, the trial court was questioning prospective juror number 9 ("K.C."), who indicated she was an attorney, when the following exchange took place:

[Court:] [K.C.], are you familiar with the people involved in today's case?
[K.C.:] No, sir.
[Court:] Anything about the facts of the case?
[K.C.:] It may be a case I've been reading about in the paper, but I'm not sure.
[Court:] Okay. Hold that thought.
[Court:] Have you served on a jury before?
[K.C.:] Yes, sir.
[Court:] What kind of case?
[K.C.:] A possession of a narcotics case and the defendant took an acquittal.
[Court:] Was that recently?
[K.C.:] A few years.
[Court:] Have you or close friends or relatives ever worked in law enforcement?
[K.C.:] No, sir.
[Court:] Have you or a close friend or relative been a crime victim?
[K.C.:] Yes, sir.
[Court:] Could you tell us a little bit about that?
[K.C.:] My mother was raped and murdered.
[Court:] Would that event have any bearing on your ability to be a fair and impartial juror in today's case?
[K.C.:] Yes, it might.
[Court:] Do you have any questions ...

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