Chapter 9 Adjudication: Trials and Guilty Pleas

JurisdictionNorth Carolina

Chapter 9 Adjudication: Trials and Guilty Pleas

A. Introduction

To this point, we have examined several factors that are prominently associated with wrongful convictions: mistaken eyewitness identifications, false confessions, the malfeasance and misfeasance of prosecutors and defense counsel, faulty forensics, and unreliable informants. Although ultimately contributing to erroneous guilty verdicts, these problem areas frequently arise outside of the adjudication process. We now alter our focus to consider attributes of the judicial guilt-determination process—both trials and guilty pleas—that can help spawn miscarriages of justice. The adjudication process can misfire in diverse ways to help result in innocent people being convicted. We examine several important potential sources of error in trial verdicts and convictions based on guilty pleas in the following sections.

B. Trial-Related Issues

1. Prejudicial Publicity

United States v. Carona
571 F.Supp.2d 1157 (C.D. Cal. 2008)

ANDREW J. GUILFORD, District Judge.

The essence of American culture lies in our founding documents. A principal feature of those documents is that when the government, with its immense power, accuses a person of a crime, that person is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a trial before an unbiased jury. These principles are not mere platitudes taught to school children, but are central to our nation's commitment to the protection of individual liberty. Including such concepts in the opening of this Order may seem unnecessarily obvious and sentimental. But sadly, it is not. For in this case some have disgraced our collective American heritage by actively seeking to deny the Defendants their right to a fair trial by an unbiased jury. This has been done by some seeking the money that comes with fame, and sponsored by others seeking profit. The conduct includes encouraging citizens to lie under oath in one of our country's courts. These selfish acts dishonor not only our country, but those who have made great sacrifices to preserve the freedoms and rights that define who we are as a people.

But the Court finds that the advocates of such lawlessness are not nearly as important as they pretend, and their listeners are not the gullible audience they suppose. The Court will not overreact to bait offered by largely satirical commentators. Cynicism will not prevail, and the Court is confident that the population of Orange County will produce twelve jurors who will embrace their obligation as citizens of this country to provide the Defendants with a trial before an unbiased jury. The Court intends to take all necessary precautions to ensure that the promise of a fair trial is delivered in this case. The Motion to Transfer Venue ("Motion") is therefore DENIED.

BACKGROUND

Defendants Michael Carona, Deborah Carona, and Debra Hoffman ("Defendants") face trial on a series of charges relating to their alleged conspiracy to use Michael Carona's office as Orange County Sheriff to enrich themselves and other co-conspirators, thereby depriving the residents of Orange County of the honest services of an elected official. In this Motion, Defendants contend that the extent and nature of pretrial publicity related to the case requires the Court to presume that Defendants' right to an impartial jury has been prejudiced, leaving the Court "no choice but to transfer venue."

In general, pretrial publicity in this case has been similar to other criminal cases involving a high-profile member of society. Defendants have submitted a compilation of what they describe as "a sampling of the prejudicial newspaper articles and other media that have pervaded the Central District both before and after the indictment was unsealed on October 30, 2007." These articles include many viewpoint-neutral factual accounts of the case, along with negative portrayals of Defendant Michael Carona in articles with the following headlines: "A Sheriff's Rising Star is Dimmed by Scandal," Los Angeles Times; "Dumb and Dumber: The stupidity of ex-sheriff Mike Carona, forever preserved on FBI Surveillance tape" OC Weekly; and "Inside Orange County Jails: Grand Jury transcripts underscore just how low Michael Carona dragged the O.C. Sheriff's Department," Los Angeles Times.

While some degree of negative publicity is inevitable, and most of the media attention in this case has been unremarkable, Defendants contend that the unprecedented actions taken by a few individuals in the media have made pretrial publicity in this case exceptionally prejudicial. A talk radio program has encouraged potential jurors to conceal their biases toward Defendants during the jury selection process in an effort to increase the likelihood that they will be chosen for the jury in this case, and to unthinkingly find Defendants guilty if selected to the jury. Specifically, they have advocated that potential jurors lie under oath to the Court and the attorneys about their knowledge and preconceptions regarding the case, and about whether they listen to the offending radio program.

LEGAL STANDARD

Due process requires that a criminal defendant "receive a trial by an impartial jury free from outside influences." Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, 362 (1966); see also Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723, 724-26 (1963) (finding that failure to transfer venue violated defendant's due process rights where proceedings occurred "in a community so pervasively exposed" to prejudicial publicity that the trial was "but a hollow formality"). A court must grant a motion to change venue "if prejudicial pretrial publicity makes it impossible to seat an impartial jury," Ainsworth v. Calderon, 138 F.3d 787, 795 (9th Cir. 1998), and the burden is on the defendant seeking a change of venue to establish that he cannot obtain a fair trial without a change.

In Daniels v. Woodford, 428 F.3d 1181, 1211 (9th Cir.2005), cert. denied, 127 S.Ct. 2876 (2007), the Ninth Circuit held that to support a change of venue the defendant "must demonstrate either actual or presumed prejudice." Actual prejudice exists where the jurors have "demonstrated actual partiality or hostility that could not be laid aside." Because this motion for change of venue is brought before a jury has been selected, and even before the voir dire process, Defendants cannot establish actual prejudice and must make a showing of presumed prejudice. "Prejudice is presumed only in extreme instances 'when the record demonstrates that the community where the trial [is to be] held [is] saturated with prejudice and inflammatory media about the crime.' " A court is to consider three factors when determining presumed prejudice: (1) whether there was a "barrage of inflammatory publicity immediately prior to trial, amounting to a huge ... wave of public passion"; (2) whether the news accounts were primarily factual because such accounts tend to be less inflammatory than editorial or cartoons; and (3) whether the media accounts contained inflammatory or prejudicial material not admissible at trial. Daniels, 428 F.3d at 1211. A district judge has broad discretion in ruling on a motion for change of venue.

ANALYSIS

... Having considered the particular facts of this case under the factors from Daniels, the Court declines to find a presumption of prejudice.

Under the first Daniels factor, courts consider whether there has been a "barrage of inflammatory publicity" that amounts to "wave of public passion." While there has clearly been heightened public interest in this case, such interest is expected when a prominent elected official is charged with criminal wrongdoing. It is natural, and indeed healthy, for citizens to express concern when the integrity of our public servants falls under suspicion. The attention of the public and the media to this case is not unusual in this regard. The Court is also influenced by the fact that the crimes alleged in this case, such as bribery, corruption, and witness tampering, are of a character less likely to incite a "wave of public passion." In contrast to the facts of this case, the typical case requiring a transfer of venue involves a crime, such as rape or murder, that is likely to evoke a visceral response from the public. See, e.g.,... Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, 335-37 (requiring change of venue in case where defendant physician was accused of bludgeoning his pregnant wife to death, and "news media inflamed and prejudiced the public"). The potential for public outrage and indignation spawned by allegations of government corruption should not be downplayed. But the public response to acts of physical violence is of an inherently different character, involving passion that heightens the risk of bias and prejudice trumping rational thought.

Another factor in the Daniels analysis is whether news accounts of the case are "primarily factual, because such accounts tend to be less inflammatory than editorials or cartoons." As with any high-profile case, the media coverage here does include editorials and other opinionated statements expressing bias and hostility against the Defendants. But the majority of media accounts are factual in nature, following the progress of the case as it moves toward trial. Further, the Court finds that the volume of editorialization and expressions of opinion in the media has generally declined since charges were brought against Defendants in October 2007.

Finally, Daniels is concerned with whether media accounts of the case contain "inflammatory or prejudicial material not admissible at trial." Defendants contend that media accounts of Michael Carona include a "wide range" of prejudicial materials not admissible at trial. But many of the materials Defendants cite in this regard were published well before charges were brought against Defendants in this case, dating back to as early as 2005. As the elected sheriff of one of the nation's most populous counties, Michael Carona was certain to be the focus of media attention, both...

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