A Montrose County judge improperly allowed a woman to serve on a jury who made “problematic comments" about her ability to decide the case fairly, the Court of Appeals decided on Thursday in reversing a man’s murder conviction.
Earl Wayne McWilliams will receive a new trial for his role in the death of 46-year-old Stephanie Boyd after a three-judge appellate panel concluded a juror identified only by her initials, D.E., gave the impression during jury selection that she would not abide by the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The Attorney General argues that we should affirm the conviction, noting that, at points during voir dire, Juror D.E. said that she would give McWilliams the benefit of the doubt and would try to consider all of the evidence and reach her decision on that basis,” wrote Judge Diana Terry in the April 22 opinion, referring to the process of interviewing prospective jurors. “We are not convinced.”
The Montrose County jury convicted Williams of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault for causing Boyd’s death in 2016. Jurors heard witness testimony of McWilliams’s erratic driving prior to his truck crossing into oncoming traffic and colliding with Boyd’s vehicle. His defense attorney argued McWilliams might have been guilty of reckless driving, but not of homicide.
At the time, McWilliams was driving a friend to a drug rehabilitation facility, and his blood tested positive for methamphetamine after the crash. The jury, however, could not reach a verdict on a charge related to driving under the influence.
During jury selection, D.E. agreed she would be able to find McWilliams not guilty if the prosecution had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. But later, she admitted she would not be comfortable deciding on a verdict.
After the defense attorney asked why that was, D.E. responded, “if they didn’t have enough evidence, I would kind of be like, well, maybe that doesn’t mean necessarily not guilty.”
She continued that she would give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant. But if the prosecution did not offer sufficient evidence, “I’m not going to immediately think he’s innocent. You get me? Like I’m not going to be like, oh, well, just because they don’t have enough evidence, that doesn’t mean that he’s not guilty. If they do have enough evidence, that doesn’t mean he is guilty. It’s just kind of like how everything moves along.”
After McWilliams’s lawyer asked whether D.E. could consider all of the evidence and make a decision, D.E. replied: “Well, I’ll try.”
The Sixth Amendment ensures the right to an impartial jury, an essential component of which is that jurors reach a decision based on the evidence presented at trial. Following her statements, the defense asked to excuse D.E. from serving on the jury, but District Court Judge Keri A. Yoder rejected the request.
Yoder determined D.E. had not expressed bias or an inability to follow instructions. McWilliams did not later seek to excuse D.E. through a peremptory challenge, which does not require attorneys to give a reason for the dismissal.
Responding to McWilliams’s appeal, the attorney general’s office drew attention to D.E.’s comments suggesting she would try to arrive at a verdict based on the evidence. But that argument, said Terry, “failed to mention or address some of Juror D.E.’s most problematic comments on the burden of proof.”
“Moments after Juror D.E. told the court that she understood the burden of proof and could properly apply it, she went on to repeatedly say that even if the prosecution did not meet its burden, she might be unable to acquit McWilliams,” Terry continued. “Juror D.E.’s responses, when taken as a whole, indicate legitimate reasons to question her ability to apply the burden of proof and serve as a fair and impartial juror.”
The panel also determined it made no difference that the defense failed to excuse D.E. at its second opportunity because the overriding concern was whether a biased person actually sat on the jury. Due to the high barrier in examining the deliberations of jurors after the fact, courts focus instead on assembling an impartial jury at the beginning of trial.
The case is People v. McWilliams.