NEW CASE just published
Bell v. State, A11A0118 (July 5, 2011).
Following his 2005 conviction for rape, defendant appealed from the denial of his motion for new trial.
During voir dire, the panel member stated that he had heard of a person named James Bell who was accused of a previous sexual assault in another county, and asked if it was the same person because the victim in that assault was his grandmother.
The State responded: “Your grandmother is [name omitted]?” To which the juror responded: “My grandmother is Ardella [name omitted].”
When questioned if he knew James Bell, the juror responded that he did not, but wondered if it was the same person.
The State then responded: “I can’t go into the past. That’s what the judge was getting at and that’s what I’m getting at. We can’t talk about what happened in the past, just talking about today.
The juror was then asked whether his relationship with his grandmother would affect his ability to be fair and impartial, he responded that “I would hope so. I guess I could because I don’t know James Bell. I can’t say that I know him.”
Defense counsel requested to approach and moved for a mistrial.
Although the motion for mistrial was premature – the proper procedural tool for the defense to have used was either a “challenge to the poll” or a motion for a postponement to impanel other jurors who had not heard the remark. However, regardless of the label which defense counsel placed on his motion, his import was clear, i.e., that the prospective jurors had been prejudiced by the remarks and that the appellant was entitled to a new panel from which to choose a jury to hear his case.
The law in Georgia provides “[w]hen a prejudicial matter is improperly placed before the jury, a mistrial is appropriate if it is essential to the preservation of the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”
Due process requires “a jury capable and willing to decide the case solely on the evidence before it, and a trial judge ever watchful to prevent prejudicial occurrences and to determine the effect of such occurrences when they happen.”
Here, although the prospective juror at issue said he was not sure if the defendant was the same James Bell accused of raping of his grandmother, rather than leave the questioned unanswered, and move on to another juror, the State elicited more information from the juror. Specifically, the State asked if the juror’s grandmother was ” [name omitted]” thereby providing the other prospective jurors with the name of another alleged rape victim in a crime for which Bell was not on trial.
This comment by the state was inherently prejudicial and deprived Bell of his right to begin his trial with a jury free from even a suspicion of prejudgment or fixed opinion.
Because the trial was tainted from the beginning, Bell’s conviction was reversed.