Washington Appellate Court Clarifies Standard for Whether Jury Has Been Tainted

State v. Strange (2015)

The Washington State Court of Appeals has affirmed George Thomas Strange’s convictions of child molestation in the second degree and voyeurism. The court decided that Strange was not deprived of a fair trial even though one possible juror stated, within the hearing of persons who eventually sat as jurors, his opinion that child molestation accusations always have some basis in fact.

Strange was tried in Cowlitz County Superior Court in Kelso.

During the questioning of potential jurors before the trial began, one potential juror said that, although he did not have a lot of experience with child molestation, he believed that accusing someone of child molestation must mean that “something” happened.

For unrelated reasons, this man was not chosen to be a part of the jury that eventually decided the case. However, on appeal of his convictions, Strange argued that the potential juror’s comments tainted the jury that convicted him, since all members of it heard the comments. Thus his rights to an unbiased jury under the Washington State Constitution, and to a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, were violated.

The court did not agree. It rejected Strange’s comparison of his case to an older case from the federal court of appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In that case, Mach v. Stewart, 137 F.3d 630 (9th Cir. 1997), the court reversed Mach’s conviction for sexual conduct with a minor because one potential juror’s comments may have tainted the jury’s view of the case. The potential juror in the Mach case said that in her experience, children who make accusations of child sexual abuse are “never” wrong. The potential jurors knew that that potential juror was a social worker and had extensive experience in child sexual abuse cases.

The Ninth Circuit held that, at the very least, the jurors should have been questioned more about their thoughts on the social worker’s comments before they were placed on the jury. Because they were not, their view of the case may have been tainted by the statements. Thus, empaneling the jury that convicted Mach violated Mach’s right to a fair trial.

But the Washington court explains that Strange’s case is different from Mach’s for two reasons. First, in the Strange case, none of the jurors claimed any expertise in child sexual abuse; in the Mach case, the social worker had actually worked for Child Protective Services. Second, in the Strange case, no potential jurors stated as strongly as the social worker had in the Mach case that child abuse complainants “never lie” or are “never” wrong.

The court also held that Strange had no ineffective assistance of counsel claim and that his right to a unanimous verdict was not violated.

Although the Washington appellate court affirmed Strange’s convictions, the principle relied upon in the Mach case remains strong. As the Ninth Circuit explained there, “Due process requires that the defendant be tried by a jury capable and willing to decide the case solely on the evidence before it.” If even one juror is biased, a defendant’s constitutional guarantee to an impartial jury is violated, and the conviction must be reversed.