State of Washington v. Ragland (2016)
by David S. Marshall
The Washington State Court of Appeals has ruled in an Olympia father’s favor, finding that the trial court violated his constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict when it failed to give unanimity instructions to the jury in his case. On appeal, the court reversed his convictions for first degree rape of a child, first degree incest, and second degree incest convictions and ordered Mr. Ragland be given a new trial on those counts.
A criminal conviction is only valid when a unanimous jury finds that the defendant committed the criminal act charged. When the evidence suggests a defendant committed multiple criminal acts, a so-called “unanimity instruction” informs the jury that, in order to find the defendant guilty of a particular charge, they must unanimously agree the defendant committed a particular criminal act.
The unanimity instruction protects the defendant’s constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict. The failure of a trial court to provide this instruction is considered by appellate courts to be a serious error due to the possibility that some jurors relied on one act to reach a conviction while others relied on another act.
Mr. Ragland, the Olympia father in this case, faced three charges at trial arising out of accusations that he had improperly handled his two children while caring for them during his wife’s evening work shifts. At trial, Mr. Ragland’s children testified against him, but their testimony was conflicting as to the nature, timing, and place of the events they said occurred, and one of the children had trouble remembering many details. Statements made by the children to their mother and a detective were also admitted at trial. These statements were also contradictory.
Mr. Ragland denied all the charges in his trial testimony.
On appeal, the court found that where there is conflicting testimony and a lack of specificity at trial (as in Mr. Ragland’s case), a reasonable juror could have had a reasonable doubt as to which events actually occurred and which did not. Different jurors may have rested their guilty votes on different acts alleged in the evidence. Because the trial court did not instruct jurors that they had to all agree on a particular act for each count of conviction, Mr. Ragland was denied his constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict, and he is entitled to a new trial.