Pierce County Man Granted New Trial Due to Unfair Jury Instruction

In re Pers. Restraint Petition of Meredith (2017)

by David S. Marshall

The Washington State Court of Appeals, Division II, has granted Gary Meredith’s petition for relief from personal restraint—his imprisonment because of his 1996 convictions of rape of a child in the second degree (Count I) and communication with a minor for immoral purposes (Count II). The appellate court granted Mr. Meredith a new trial because it found that the trial court had allowed his jury to make unfair use of his prior convictions.

The Problematic Jury Instruction At Mr. Meredith’s Trial

At Mr. Meredith’s trial, the State said it wanted the jury to hear about his two prior convictions for two reasons:

  • The prior felony conviction elevated Count II from a gross misdemeanor to a felony (RCW 9.68a.090(2)). It was an “element”—a part of the definition—of the felony charged
  • The similarities between the prior offenses and the offenses charged at trial showed that Mr. Meredith’s actions in the charged offenses were likely intentional misconduct, not a matter of mistake

Mr. Meredith argued that his prior convictions were admissible only for the first purpose, and only at sentencing, should the jury find that he communicated with a minor for an immoral purpose. The trial court agreed with the State and ruled that the prior convictions were admissible for both reasons.

Before jury deliberations in any trial, the judge gives the jury instructions on how to evaluate the evidence of the case. To ensure a fair trial, the judge must sometimes limit the jury’s consideration of particular evidence through a limiting instruction. The trial court in Mr. Meredith’s case gave this limiting instruction to the jury:

Evidence that Mr. Meredith has previously been convicted of a crime is not evidence of his guilt.  Such evidence may be considered by you in deciding Count II [communication with a minor for immoral purposes] and for no other purpose.

The jury convicted Mr. Meredith of both rape of a child in the second degree and communication with a minor for immoral purposes. He received a 198-month sentence and filed this personal restraint petition, seeking a new trial.

How The Appellate Court Found In Mr. Meredith’s Favor

What is a Personal Restraint Petition?

Incarcerated persons in Washington State may request relief (often in the form of a new trial) through a personal restraint petition (PRP). To succeed with a PRP, petitioners must prove an error occurred at trial that either violated their constitutional rights or resulted in a complete miscarriage of justice.

Evidence of Mr. Meredith’s Prior Convictions at Trial

Mr. Meredith argued in his PRP that his right to a fair trial by an impartial jury was violated because the trial court improperly admitted character evidence: his prior convictions. The prior convictions were not otherwise relevant to prove either rape of a child or immoral communication with a minor, and it was unfairly prejudicial for the jury to hear about them. The court of appeals decided that, while the prior conviction evidence was admissible as an element of the communication with a minor charge, it was inadmissible as character evidence.

Washington Rule of Evidence 404(b) provides that evidence of other crimes is not admissible to show that a person’s bad character caused him or her to do the bad thing of which he or she has been charged. At trial, the court found Mr. Meredith’s prior convictions were admissible for the purpose of showing that the crimes alleged had actually occurred, and to prove preparation and plan due to the similarity between the victims, circumstances, and acts of the prior and current offenses.

But the prosecutor did not offer the facts underlying Mr. Meredith’s prior convictions in evidence. Only that he had the prior convictions came into evidence. While the underlying facts may have demonstrated a common scheme, preparation, or plan, the fact of conviction alone could not show similarities in details of the crimes. Its usefulness to the State in proving Mr. Meredith’s guilt was outweighed by its harmful and unfair effect in portraying him as a bad man.

The Problem with the Limiting Jury Instruction

The court of appeals held that the trial court’s limiting instruction failed to adequately instruct the jury on how to apply the prior conviction evidence to the communication with a minor charge.  While the instruction correctly limited consideration of the prior conviction evidence to Count II, it did not further instruct the jury that it could only use the prior conviction to decide one element of Count II. (The prior conviction elevated the communication with a minor charge from a gross misdemeanor to a felony.)  The trial court erred by giving this instruction.

The court of appeals also concluded Mr. Meredith had received ineffective assistance of appellate counsel due to his lawyer’s failure to object to errors during jury selection.