A man convicted of sexually assaulting a drunk woman will receive a new trial, after the Colorado Court of Appeals found a Denver judge improperly allowed a victim of child molestation to serve as a juror who doubted her ability to be impartial.
“A prospective juror does not need to unequivocally state her partiality for one side to be deemed unfit to serve on a jury,” wrote Judge Matthew D. Grove in an opinion issued on Thursday.
A Denver jury had convicted Daniel Blassingame on one count of sexual assault for allegedly having sex with a woman he met at a party when she was too impaired to assess what was going on. Blassingame appealed, pointing to the rule requiring dismissal of a juror if they are biased toward one side or already have an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
During jury selection, a woman identified as Juror S disclosed she was the victim of molestation when she was a child. She also revealed that her father had not believed her.
“As you sit here right now, do you think Mr. Blassingame must be guilty?” Denver District Court Judge William D. Robbins, Jr. asked her. She said she did not know.
After additional questioning from Robbins, Juror S said, “If I feel that he’s guilty, I want to make sure he doesn’t get away with it. But I probably wouldn’t say he’s guilty without hearing the case.”
The prosecutor then inquired whether Juror S could follow the jury instructions “regardless of what else happened in your life?” She responded: “I hope so.”
Juror S made clear her discomfort with the subject matter of the trial, and admitted to the defense attorney that “I don’t want other people to look at it as a victim not being believed again, you know.”
When the lawyer asked her explicitly if she would be more likely to believe the victim than another witness, Juror S answered: “I’m not saying that I would. I’m saying I’m afraid that I would.”
Blassingame attempted to dismiss her from the jury, pointing to “her emotional state as it pertains to her own experiences” and her inclination to put greater emphasis on the victim’s testimony.
Robbins denied the request, reasoning that her bias toward the victim “has to be something to the effect of no matter what the rest of the evidence is — not all things being equal, but no matter what the rest of the evidence is, I’m going to believe the victim. And I don’t think she rises to that level. So she stays.”
The three-member Court of Appeals panel agreed that Juror S had attempted at points to indicate she would set aside her already-formed thoughts about sexual assault and decide the case on the facts. But jury selection ended with her doubting her own ability to be fair.
“[T]he trial court concluded that Juror S should not be removed unless she would credit the victim no matter what the rest of the evidence established. That is incorrect,” Grove wrote. “Rather, the key question is whether, as a matter of law, the trial court adequately accounted for Juror S’s repeated suggestions that her own past trauma would adversely impact her ability to fairly evaluate the evidence.”
A spokesperson for the Denver District Attorney's Office said it is working with the Attorney General's Office to possibly seek the Supreme Court's review of the decision.
Kate Hulme, a plaintiff's attorney at Cannon Law in Fort Collins, said that issues or juror bias arise frequently at trials, most particularly in high-profile cases.
"While I always advocate strongly for victims of alleged assault, it is paramount that we have trust in in the outcomes of our judicial processes that the rights of all involved are protected," she said.
The case is People v. Blassingame.