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Laguerre v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 1, 2017

LAGUERRE
v.
THE STATE.

          Hines, Chief Justice.

         Verlaine Laguerre appeals the denial of his plea of former jeopardy on the ground that his retrial for murder and related crimes would violate the federal and state constitutional prohibitions against double jeopardy. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         On March 20, 2012, a Fulton County grand jury indicted Laguerre and his co-defendant Prentice Baker, and the case proceeded to a joint trial. Although voir dire was not transcribed, the trial court has stated in its order denying Laguerre's plea of former jeopardy that it informed the jury panel of the attorneys' estimate that the trial would last seven to nine days.[1] The parties agree that jury selection began on Tuesday, December 9, 2014, and, therefore, lasted nearly three days until the State called its first witness late in the afternoon on December 11, 2014.

         Over the next three weekdays, December 12, 15, and 16, the prosecutor began to present the State's case and had to revise his estimate for completing that presentation from Tuesday, December 16 to Friday, December 19 or later because of the slow pace of the trial. Baker's attorney stated that she expected to call seven witnesses, and she estimated that she would need a week to present Baker's case. One of the jurors was excused and replaced by one of the two alternates, another juror asked to leave early on December 19 to make a prepaid weekend trip, still another juror had a prepaid family trip beginning on Monday, December 22 to visit his mother-in-law who had terminal cancer, and a list prepared for the court showed that seven jurors had prepaid holiday trips, four of which were to begin on December 23. As a result, the trial court considered excusing a second juror and instructed the case manager to poll the jurors to determine all scheduling conflicts for the holidays.

         On the morning of December 17, the trial court reported that on each day during both the week of December 22 and the following week, three to five jurors had conflicts, and that the first time that a complete jury could be back together would be Thursday, January 8. During an hour-long recess, the trial court and the attorneys went into chambers where they determined that they had only two options: either the court should declare a mistrial or order a continuance for nearly three weeks from December 19 to January 8. After the in-chambers conference, the parties, through their attorneys, stated their positions on the record.

         Baker acquiesced in a mistrial because of the jurors' apparent unpreparedness to be in a trial over nine days, and because it would not be in the best interest of the defense if it were blamed or placed in a negative light by continuation of the trial. The prosecutor also acquiesced in a mistrial as the "lesser of two evils, " expressing his concern over the jurors' ability to recollect all the evidence after an extended break, especially when they were never told that there would be such a break. The prosecutor further emphasized that the jurors had made known their disgust with the duration of the process and its impact on their schedules and that the jurors could be prejudiced against the State or the defense through no fault of the State, just as two prospective jurors had to be excused for cause because of their bias against Laguerre's counsel due to the length of the voir dire process.

         The trial court's case manager was requested to place her discussions with the jury on the record, and she indicated that because of the length and pace of the trial, the jurors anticipated that they would not be able to return to their usual schedules by the week after next. After she specifically asked them about scheduling conflicts for the two upcoming weeks, they expressed "some exasperation." When she asked about the third week, there were "expressions of disgust" and "a general feeling of discord" among the jurors regarding "even the inquiry, " and one of them slammed a notebook on the table.

         Over Laguerre's objection, the trial court declared a mistrial, stating that the State in its discretion could try the case at a later date. In the subsequent order denying Laguerre's plea of former jeopardy, the trial court reviewed the circumstances set forth above and expressly found no evidence that the State was benefitted by a delay, engaged in any prosecutorial misconduct, or did anything to induce a mistrial. The court further stated that it had observed the reaction of the jurors during the trial, had carefully considered the alternative of resuming it on January 8, 2015, and was aware of the jury's frustration with the pace of the trial and with the possibility of recommencement after a prolonged, unanticipated break. The court concluded that, under all the particular facts and circumstances, the jury would not have been able to render a fair verdict and there was a high degree of necessity for a mistrial.

         Laguerre contends that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his plea of former jeopardy because the circumstances did not demonstrate the "manifest necessity" that was constitutionally required to authorize a mistrial over his objection. Under the Double Jeopardy Clauses of the United States and Georgia Constitutions, "[t]rial courts may declare a mistrial over the defendant's objection, without barring retrial, whenever, in their opinion, taking all the circumstances into consideration, there is a manifest necessity for doing so." Harvey v. State, 296 Ga. 823, 830 (2) (a) (770 S.E.2d 840) (2015) (citation and punctuation omitted). See also OCGA § 16-1-8 (a) (2) ("A prosecution is barred if the accused was formerly prosecuted for the same crime based upon the same material facts, if such former prosecution . . . [w]as terminated improperly after the jury was impaneled and sworn . . . ."), 16-1-8 (e) (enumerating various circumstances in which termination is not improper). This "manifest necessity" standard "cannot be interpreted literally, and . . . a mistrial is appropriate when there is a 'high degree' of necessity." Harvey, 296 Ga. at 831 (2) (a) (citation and punctuation omitted). Whether such necessity exists "is to be determined by weighing the defendant's right to have his trial completed before the particular tribunal against the interest of the public in having fair trials designed to end in just judgments; and the decision must take into consideration all the surrounding circumstances." Reed v. State, 267 Ga. 482, 484 (1) (480 S.E.2d 27) (1997) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         Where, as here, there is no showing of prosecutorial misconduct, the trial court has discretion in determining whether to grant a mistrial. See Laster v. State, 268 Ga. 172, 173 (1) (486 S.E.2d 153) (1997).

The decisions of this Court and the U.S. Supreme Court emphasize that whether the required degree of necessity for a mistrial has been shown is a matter best judged by the trial court. The propriety of declaring a mistrial in the varying and often unique situations arising during the course of a criminal trial cannot be determined by the application of any mechanical formula.

Harvey, 296 Ga. at 831 (2) (a) (citations and punctuation omitted).

A trial court has acted within its sound discretion in rejecting possible alternatives and in granting a mistrial, if reasonable judges could differ about the proper disposition, even though in a strict, literal sense, the mistrial is not necessary. This great deference means that the availability of another alternative does not without more render a mistrial order an abuse of sound discretion. Deference to the judge's sound discretion also precludes a reviewing court ...

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