The trial court erred in allowing a juror to be seated in a 2016 vehicular homicide case, over defense objections that she had said she might not be able to acquit the defendant, Earl McWilliams, even if she thought there was reasonable doubt.
The Colorado Court of Appeals so found this past spring, reversing McWilliams’ conviction and ordering a new trial. The appellate court rejected the other basis of his appeal, finding there had been sufficient evidence to prove the charge of reckless vehicular homicide in the 2016 death of Stephanie Boyd.
McWilliams has been set for an Aug. 23 status hearing concerning a new trial.
The morning of July 6, 2016, a sleep-deprived McWilliams was driving back to Cortez after dropping off an acquaintance at a rehab facility in Crawford. As he drove down south U.S. 550, he crossed into oncoming traffic, colliding head-on with Boyd, 46, a local teacher, who was driving her 18-year-old daughter to an appointment.
Boyd died at the scene. Her daughter was severely injured.
A jury in 2018 convicted McWilliams of reckless vehicular homicide and of vehicular assault. It could not reach a unanimous verdict on charges of vehicular homicide-DUI and DUI.
McWilliams was sentenced to four years in prison.
He appealed, however, arguing that a juror identified by the initials D.E. should have been excused because of her statements during jury selection and, further, that there was insufficient proof to demonstrate that he was “reckless” when he struck the Boyd vehicle.
The Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which handled the appellate case, argued McWilliams’ appeal did not present the full context of D.E.’s statements during jury selection, during which she also said “what else can you do” when asked if she would consider all evidence in making a determination.
The AG’s answer to the appeal says the trial court asked the logical questions and appropriately found that, despite D.E.’s initial confusion, she would be able to follow the court’s instructions, including that she wouldn’t be able to convict McWilliams if prosecutors did not meet their burden of proof.
The trial court’s questioning also established that D.E. understood only prosecutors had that burden; that she would give the benefit of doubt to McWilliams and would try to consider all evidence in making a determination.
As required by case precedent, D.E. had made a “commitment to try to put biases aside” and “expressed a belief … that she could be fair,” the AG’s answer states.
Accordingly, the Montrose District Court did not abuse its discretion in keeping the woman on the jury despite the defense’s challenge.
The Colorado State Public Defender’s office, which handled McWilliams’ appeal, disagreed, as did the state appeals court judges.
It was the prosecutors who selectively quoted from D.E.’s answers to the trial court, public defender Megan Ring said in the reply to the AG’s answer brief. The juror repeatedly said she wouldn’t necessarily find McWilliams wasn’t guilty, even if there was insufficient evidence, Ring wrote.
Even after the trial court questioned her about her statements, D.E., per the record, expressed doubts: “If they don’t have enough evidence, I’m not going to immediately think he’s innocent. You get me? Like, I’m not going to be like, oh, well, just because they don’t have enough evidence, that doesn’t mean that he’s not guilty.”
D.E. should have been excused from the jury, Ring argued. She had plainly stated that insufficient evidence might not keep her from voting to convict and the court’s further inquiry did not demonstrate her statements were the result of a mistake or confusion.
“Because she sat on the jury that convicted Mr. McWilliams, reversal is required,” Ring argued.
The appellate court in its order agreed D.E. should have been removed for cause.
Her responses, taken as a whole “indicate legitimate reasons to question her ability to apply the burden of proof and serve as a fair an impartial juror,” the panel of three judges found, per the order.
It was a mixed win for McWilliams. The Court of Appeals found there had been sufficient evidence to support the legal element of “recklessness” in his initial conviction.
Per the order: Witnesses had seen his truck moving erratically; McWilliams told an officer that he should have pulled over and that he “had the nods.” He told another officer that he kept dozing off behind the wheel.
Case law has established that continuing to drive despite “sufficient advance warning” of drowsiness constitutes willful and wanton conduct. Recklessness is the conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk.
The order further notes: The woman McWilliams drove to rehab testified that McWilliams had smoked methamphetamine during the trip; his blood tested positive for the drug, and an expert witness testified at trial that meth can create sleep deficit.
McWilliams in the reply brief had contended that prosecutors tried to use evidence of methamphetamine use to support a finding of recklessness, but because the jury hung on the related counts, the alleged meth-use cannot be relied upon as proof of recklessness.
“We are not presuaded by McWilliams’ argument, raised for the first time in his reply brief, that we should ignore the evidence of his methamphetamine use in determining whether the evidence was sufficient to support his convictions, given that the jury hung on the DUI counts based on his methamphetamine use,” the justices wrote.
“Because that evidence was presented to the jury, it can properly be considered in evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence. … And even without evidence of McWilliams’ methamphetamine use, the evidence was still sufficient to prove that he acted recklessly.”
But because McWilliams’ prevailed on his appeal concerning the seating of juror D.E., his conviction was overturned.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.