Texarkana, Texas | The Sixth Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Kennedy Dewayne Riley. A jury found him guilty of capital murder of Troydricus Lamar Robinson and sentenced to life in prison. The court determined that the jury charge contained errors and these errors caused the defendant “egregious harm”. Therefore, the appellate court reversed the trial court and ordered a new trial.
The basis of the appeal was whether there were errors in the jury charge. Texarkana Defense Attorney Jason Horton explains the significance of a “jury charge”:
After all evidence is presented, the judge reads the jury the law applicable to the case in what is called the “jury charge.” The jury is permitted to take the charge back with them while deliberating, referring to the charge as they discuss the facts of the case. It is imperative that the charge accurately reflect the law. Otherwise, the jury could convict someone for a crime that the evidence did not support.
These errors generally are required to be objected to at trial – if not, the Defendant waives the right to appeal the error.
Normally, trial lawyers must object in order to “preserve” a complaint for appellate review. However, when the error is of such magnitude that the harm caused is considered “egregious,” no objection is needed. That was the case here. The appellate lawyer noticed an error that no one objected to a trial, and because of that error the defendant will get a new trial.
The court of appeals found that the jury charge contained several errors. “The charge lacked the elements of aggravating felony of robbery, a culpable mental state when discussing Riley’s potential responsibility as the primary actor, and an aggravating felony or identity of the victim in the application section when discussing Riley’s potential responsibility as a party. It also contained conflicting instructions on the required mental state,” stated the opinion.
First, under the circumstances of this case, the State must prove the elements of capital murder as well as the underlying aggravating felony. The Defendant alleges the underlying felony, robbery and attempted robbery, were not defined as the aggravating felony. Not all of the elements of the underlying crime are not required to be in the same section as the elements of murder. The court of appeals is required to look at the whole jury charge.
Second, the Defendant alleges the application section of the jury charge allowed the Defendant to be found guilty of capital murder without finding the proper mens rea – i.e. the guilty mind. The court of appeals found the jury charged allowed the Defendant to be found guilty of capital even if he unintentionally caused the murder. To convict a Defendant of capital murder under these circumstances, Texas law requires the Defendant to have intentionally caused the murder. This can be cured if the required elements are elsewhere in the jury charge.
The State argued that the jury charge contained the required mens rea four times. “In this case, however, there is not a clear and accurate statement of the required mens rea when considering the charge in its entirety,” stated the opinion. The court determined that the jury charge could lead a jury to at least three interpretations where two of the interpretations would have lead to convictions based on the elements of lesser charge than capital murder.
“Since the abstract section contains contradictory instructions regarding the required mens rea, it cannot supply the necessary mens rea element omitted from the primary-actor application paragraph. Therefore, this also is a jury charge error,” stated the opinion.
Next, the court analyzed whether the errors causes “egregious” harm.
“We find that Riley suffered egregious harm because, although (A) not requiring a finding on robbery did not, alone, cause egregious harm, (B) not requiring a finding of an intentional state of mind caused egregious harm,” stated the opinion.
The court determined that the lack of robbery elements “deprived Riley of his valuable right”. However, this error could be saved from being egregious by other factors.
On the other hand, it was egregious harm by not requiring the jury to find the Defendant acted intentionally to find a guilty verdict for capital murder. The state arguably included the correct mens rea, but the next paragraph “directly contradicts” this mens rea. Also, the State’s jury argument supported the argument that no mens rea was required.
Further, the jury charge lists the incorrect elements in the application section and then states that if both of these elements are proven, then you must convict. The position of the language and the “forceful” language compels an improper guilty verdict.
“The jury was instructed in such a way that it was not required to find at least two elements of the offense of this form of capital murder to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before convicting Riley. We find that Riley was deprived of his valuable right to have a jury determination of every element of the alleged offense and that this deprived him of a fair and impartial trial,” stated the opinion.
The court of appeals sent the case back to 202nd District Court for a new trial.