When the Verdict Gets Weird, Try to not Make it Weird Before Vacating for New Trial

 State v. Bringas (HSC August 31, 2021)

Background. Adrian-John Bringas was indicted with murder in the second degree of a minor known as W and assault in the second degree of W’s brother, C.U. At trial, the jury heard evidence that Bringas was riding his bicycle late one night in Kalihi near the Kuhio Park Terrace when his bike chain fell off. He stopped to fix it with a knife he had in his backpack. He was approached by a minor known as W. W offered him cannabis. Bringas testified that the mood felt “dark” and W was asking him several questions. A family friend of W, Eileen Prescott, showed up with her boyfriend. That lightened the situation.


Prescott testified that she saw Bringas and W talking. She turned away to her boyfriend, R. K., and overheard Bringas ask W if he wanted to buy a “dime” but W said he did not have any money. Then she noticed Bringas and W shoving each other. She testified Bringas grab a shiny object from his backpack, case W, and stab him. Bringas walked back to the dumpster and pointed him out to R.K. R.K. tacked him to the ground and they started to fight. They stopped when R.K. saw the shiny object in Bringas’s hand. C.U. showed up and attacked Bringas. C.U. hit Bringas with an objected and Bringas fell to the ground. C.U. testified he could not remember if he used an object to hit Bringas, but also testified he felt blood on his leg. He ran away from Bringas.


Bringas testified that he gathered trash and walked it over to a dumpster. He was hit on the head and fell to the ground. He got on his feet, but slipped and rolled his ankle falling again. Then an unidentified person started punching and kicking him. Bringas testified he fought the person off and started to run, but was met by two males who attacked him. Bringas grabbed the knife and shouted at them to get back. He saw Prescott had his backpack and his belongings were on the ground. Bringas was hit again and felt a person on top of him hitting and kicking him. He flailed his right hand with the knife to protect himself. Then the attack stopped and he ran away.


The circuit court, the Hon. Judge Paul Wong, instructed the jurors about murder in the second degree and the lesser-included offenses of assault in the first degree, assault in the 2d degree, and assault in the 3d degree. It also included the special interrogatory of mutual affray for assault in the 3d degree. The circuit court instructed the jury about assault in the 3d degree and mutual affray for the other count.


The jury returned its verdict form by marking in Count 1 that Bringas was guilty of murder in the 2d degree and it answered the special interrogatory by indicating that the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the fight or scuffle was not entered into by mutual affray. Bringas was acquitted of Count 2—assault in the 2d degree—but it also found that the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the fight or scuffle was not entered into by mutual consent.


At the reading of the verdict, the clerk did not read the answers to the special interrogatories. The defense did not request to poll the jury. The jury was excused. When Bringas learned about the verdict form and interrogatory, he filed a motion for new trial. The motion was denied and he was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. He appealed to the ICA, which affirmed.


The Circuit Court Didn’t Have to Recall the Jury Because the Verdict is not Ambiguous. Bringas argued that when the jury returns an ambiguous verdict, the trial court must either “have the jurors return to clarify the verdict” or, if the jury has already been discharged, “the only available remedy is a remand for a new trial[.]” Dias v. Vanek, 67 Haw. 114, 118, 679 P.2d 133, 136 (1984). The HSC disagreed.


“[T]he verdict here is not ambiguous—the jury clearly found Bringas guilty of second-degree murder for the stabbing of W.” And while Dias does lay out the preferred remedy of recalling the jury to clarify its verdict, courts are free to amend the verdict “when the intention of the jury is clear.” Dias, 67 Haw. at 117, 679 P.2d at 135. The HSC held that even though the jury did not follow its instructions because it went ahead and answered the special interrogatory after finding him guilty of murder, it did not render the verdict improper as a matter of law. Compare Kanahele v. Han, 125 Hawai'i 446, 263 P.3d 726 (2011).


Courts can Avoid a New Trial when it can Reconcile an Inconsistent Verdict. Bringas also argued that the motion for new trial should have been granted. HRS § 635-56 gives the trial court the power to set side verdicts resulting from a misunderstanding of the charges:


In any civil case or in any criminal case wherein a verdict of guilty has been rendered, the court may set aside the verdict when it appears to be so manifestly against the weight of the evidence as to indicate bias, prejudice, passion, or misunderstanding of the charge of the court on the party of the jury; or the court may in any civil or criminal case grant a new trial for any legal cause.


See also HRPP Rule 33 (new trial may be ordered “in the interests of justice.”).


The HSC first addressed the threshold issue of how to analyze confusing verdicts. It adopted the standard from civil cases. “A conflict in the jury’s answers to questions in a special verdict will warrant a new trial only if those answers are irreconcilably inconsistent, and the verdict will not be disturbed if the answers can be reconciled under any theory.” Carr v. Strode, 79 Hawai'i 475, 489, 904 P.2d 489, 503 (1995). The HSC noted that in Miyamoto v. Lum, 104 Hawai'i 1, 7, 84 P.3d 509, 515 (2004), it found that the verdict in a civil case was “irreconcilably inconsistent” only after careful scrutiny of the verdict. From these cases, the HSC distilled the principle that “appellate courts should attempt to first reconcile seemingly-inconsistent verdict before vacatur[.]” The HSC extended the principle to criminal cases.


The HSC noted that trying to reconcile an inconsistent jury verdict advances the policy of vigorously guarding the “sanctity of jury deliberations.” Oahu Publications, Inc. v. Ahn, 133 Hawai'i 482, 498-499, 331 P.3d 460, 476-477 (2014). It also avoids speculating about the jury’s deliberations and safeguards their results. Federal courts adopt a similar rule. Dunn v. United States, 284 U.S. 390, 393 (1932) (“Consistency in the verdict is not necessary.”). In sum, the HSC held that “a court tasked with determining the effect of an inconsistent verdict should attempt to harmonize the inconsistencies in the verdict so that they are reconcilable.”


In this case, the HSC held that it could reconcile the guilty verdict with the special interrogatory. According to the HSC, the jury found Bringas guilty of murder in the second degree and found that Bringas and W entered into a fight or scuffle by mutual affray. The mutual affray does not arise to self-defense and does not negate any element of murder. It is not irreconcilable and the circuit court did not err in denying the motion for new trial.


Justice McKenna’s Dissent. Justice McKenna dissented and wrote that the rule in Carr v. Strode, supra, should not extend to criminal cases. Criminal cases require the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil cases are usually between private parties under a lighter burden of proof. Justice McKenna wrote that while courts may attempt to “search for a reasonable way to read the verdicts as expressing a coherent view of a case,” in civil cases, it is not a “court’s function to search for a way to sustain a conviction” in criminal cases. That’s the prosecution’s job.


For Justice McKenna, verdict in a criminal case must be free from ambiguity and it should be set aside when “it does not convey the meaning and intention of the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.” See, e.g., Yeager v. People, 462 P.2d 487, 489 (Colo. 1969); Hyslop v. State, 68 N.W.2d 6998, 702 (Neb. 1955); Barnhill v. State, 41 So. 2d 329, 331 (Fla. 1949). Justice McKenna wrote that the verdict here is not free from ambiguity. The jury was instructed to answer the special interrogatory if and only if it found Bringas not guilty of murder in the second degree, assault in the first degree, and assault in the second degree. That makes this verdict inconsistent and ambiguous. Justice McKenna even pointed out that one of the headings in the majority’s analysis concedes that the verdict is “inconsistent.” For her, that would have been enough to vacate the conviction and set the case for a new trial.


Justice Wilson’s Dissent. Justice Wilson tracked the history of the existing rule in Hawai'i. In Territory v. Thompson, 26 Haw. 181 (Terr. 1921), the territorial supreme court examined inconsistent verdicts among different defendants charged with larceny and cattle theft. Id. at 181-182. The evidence against all of them was identical and yet Thompson was the only one found guilty. Id. at 182. The territorial court reversed the conviction and held that the verdict was “neither responsive to the evidence, in accord with reason n or reconcilable with their oaths as jurymen.” Id. at 184. The jury, it held, was not “permitted to make a difference in their cases by a purely arbitrary finding.” Id. That case has been cited when examining inconsistent verdicts in both civil and criminal cases. State v. Gager, 45 Haw. 478, 484, 370 P.2d 739, 743 (1962); Kapiolani Commercial Center v. A & S P’ship, 68 Haw. 580, 584, 723 P.2d 181, 184 (1986).


For Justice Wilson agreed that the rule as it exists now requires a new trial when the verdict is “irreconcilably inconsistent, and the verdict will not be disturbed if the answers can be reconciled under any theory.” Miyamoto, 104 Hawai'i at 8, 84 P.3d at 516. But the theory has to be “supported by the trial court’s instructions tot eh jury.” Id. For Justice Wilson, that’s not the case here.


The jury was instructed about murder in the second degree, its lesser included offenses, mutual affray, and self-defense. The jury here did not follow the court’s instructions. It found Bringas guilty as charged and found that the prosecution failed to disprove mutual affray—an incomplete defense to a lesser included offense. It also found Bringas not guilty of assault in the second degree and found that the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that there was no mutual affray. For Justice Wilson that was impossible to reconcile under the rule that goes back to the territorial days of Thompson.


Justice Wilson also agreed with Justice McKenna that a new standard should be fashioned for criminal cases. In the century that has passed since Thompson, courts from other jurisdictions have fashioned a different rule for criminal cases. Instead of looking for an irreconcilable inconsistency, the verdict “in a criminal case should be certain and devoid of ambiguity.” Yeager v. People, 462 P.2d at 489. See also State v. Douglas, 676 S.E.2d 6290, 623 (N.C. Cir. Ct. App. 2009) (“Verdicts and judgments in criminal actions should be clear and free from ambiguity or uncertainty [because] enforcement of the criminal law and the liberty of the citizen demand exactitude.”). Justice Wilson summed it up that under either test—the century old Thompson standard or the “devoid of ambiguity” standard evincing greater concern for rights of the accused—Bringas did not receive a fair trial with that verdict. He would have ordered a new trial.


Verdicts in Criminal Cases as Opposed to Civil Disputes. The differences between criminal and civil cases are often discussed among lawyers, judges, clients, and everything else. Civil cases almost always relate to money and property. The verdict form and interrogatories are often complicated and call upon jurors to come up with a number for damages and make specific findings. Criminal cases don’t work that way. There’s the charged offense, the included offenses, and a few special interrogatories like mutual affray here, or kidnapping, and merger. When things get weird and make little sense, the majority takes the view that the court must explore every possible theory to get the verdict to make sense. Once that’s done and if it still doesn’t make sense, then a new trial can be declared. The dissenters think that that rule should be left to civil cases where a person’s liberty is not at stake. It should be noted that Justice Eddins did not participate in this case. Perhaps the devoid-of-ambiguity test can make a comeback in the future.


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