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Carpenter v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

December 8, 2017

SEAN ALLEN CARPENTER, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

         Appeal from the District Court No. 3PA-14-1297 CR, Third Judicial District, Palmer, David L. Zwink, Judge.

          Josie Garton, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Raymond E. Beard, Assistant District Attorney, Palmer, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Suddock, Superior Court Judge. [*]

          OPINION

          ALLARD Judge.

         Sean Allen Carpenter was charged with fourth-degree assault for allegedly hitting his elderly mother. Five hours into the jury deliberations on this charge, the jury sent a note to the judge indicating that they were hung. The trial judge did not notify the parties of this note. Instead, on his own initiative, the trial judge engaged in a series of ex parte communications with the jury, ultimately informing them that they could return after the weekend to continue their deliberations, or they could continue to deliberate that night if'they believed that they would be able to come to a final verdict within the next twenty-five minutes. The jury indicated that they wished to continue to deliberate that night. Less than five minutes before the deadline, the jury returned a guilty verdict on the fourth-degree assault charge.

         On appeal, Carpenter argues that the judge's ex parte communications with the jury violated his constitutional rights and may have had a coercive effect on the jury. The State concedes that the judge's ex parte communications constituted constitutional error, but the State argues that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

         For the reasons explained here, we conclude that the judge's ex parte communications with the jury, after the jury had declared itself hung, were not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, and that reversal of Carpenter's conviction is therefore required.

         Background facts and procedural history

         Sean Carpenter was charged with fourth-degree assault for allegedly striking his seventy-year-old mother in the face. At trial, Carpenter testified that he did not hit his mother and that his mother was injured by accident when he leaned on a table, causing one end to fly up and strike her in the cheek. Carpenter also testified that his mother was confused about what happened and that her mental health had been deteriorating in recent years.

         Carpenter's trial began on a Thursday morning and the jury began deliberating on the case around 11:00 a.m. the following day (Friday). At 4:15 p.m., approximately five hours into its deliberations, the jury sent a note to the judge stating, "We are hung."

         The trial judge did not notify the parties of the jury's note or of their reported status. Instead, the judge engaged in a series of ex parte written communications with the jury. The exact timing of these communications is slightly unclear because the communications were written on the same sheet of paper and only some of the communications were properly time-stamped. Here is the sequence of communications, as best we can tell.

         At 4:15 p.m., the jury sent its note stating, "We are hung." At 4:19 p.m., the judge returned the note with a handwritten response stating "[d]o you think taking the weekend off [and] coming back fresh on Monday may help your progress?" The jury appears to have responded to the judge's question with the statement "We will stay."

         (Because the jury did not time-stamp this response, and because the record does not otherwise indicate when it occurred, it is possible that the jury's statement "We will stay" was sent at the same time as its response to the judge's later 4:34 p.m. communication. In either case, however, our analysis of the judge's ex parte communications remains the same. We nevertheless take this opportunity to remind ...


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