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Edmondson v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

August 24, 2017




          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Leilani K.M. Martin Assistant Attorney General



         On the evening of January 11, 2014, eleven-year-old Jessica[1] went to the Sturgis Youth Center in Union County, Kentucky. Jessica was there with her mother, who was facilitating the Youth Center's concession stand. While Jessica and another child were playing air hockey, Appellant, Phillip Edmondson, offered a dollar to Jessica if she could score a goal. Jessica scored four separate goals during the game. Each time Appellant paid her the reward, he grabbed her buttocks. Later in the evening, Appellant grabbed Jessica's buttocks once more when saying goodbye. Unable to verbally communicate the prior events, Jessica created a written note on her cell phone describing Appellant's inappropriate touching. Jessica then showed the note to her friend while the two were still at the Youth Center. Jessica's friend told her mother about the note, who in turn told Jessica's mother. At that time, Jessica's mother contacted law enforcement. A video from the Youth Center was collected and, according to law enforcement, [2] corroborated Jessica's claims.

         Appellant was subsequently indicted by a Union Circuit Court grand jury on a single count of first-degree sexual abuse. On June 22, 2015, Appellant was convicted of the crime charged. In conformity with the jury's recommendation, Appellant was sentenced to six years' imprisonment. Soon thereafter, Appellant filed a motion for a new trial pursuant to Kentucky Rule of Criminal Procedure ("RCr") 10.02, which the trial court denied. On July 22, 2016, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment and sentence. Appellant's appeal now reaches this Court by way of discretionary review.

         This Court granted discretionary review in order to address Appellant's claim that he was denied a fair and impartial jury due to Mark Danhauer, the jury foreman, being the brother-in-law of an Assistant Commonwealth Attorney, Mike Williamson. Originally, Mr. Williamson was assigned the case. However, due to Mr. Williamson's previous representation of Appellant, another Commonwealth Attorney, J. Zachary Greenwell, prosecuted the case. Despite the conflict, Mr. Williamson assisted Mr. Greenwell during jury selection. Mr, Williamson had no further involvement in Appellant's prosecution. Subsequent to Appellant's conviction, but before his final sentencing, defense counsel discovered Mr. Danhauer's relationship to Mr. Williamson. Appellant's motion for a new trial quickly followed.

         Our review of Appellant's claim requires a thorough recitation of the voir dire proceeding. As voir dire began, the trial court commenced with conducting preliminary examination of the venire panel. First, the trial judge prompted members of the venire panel to approach the bench if they believed they could not serve on the jury. At that time, numerous venire panelists who had a familial relationship with the parties approached the bench. Of the venire panelists who approached, all but one, were excused for cause including, but not limited to, ironically, Appellant's brother-in-law. Jessica's aunt, and a relative of one of Jessica's family members were also excused. The trial judge continued her examination by explaining to the venire panel that, ''few folks in that group were related or knew someone involved in the case." She then asked, "Is there anyone else in the audience that feels for some reason, some pressing reason . . . that has an issue with being here today?" Additional venire panel members approached the bench and explained knowledge of the situation. At no time did Mr. Danhauer approach the bench. The trial judge also introduced Mr. Greenwell and asked if anyone was related to him, to which Mr. Greenwell informed the court that his cousin was in the venire panel. Mr. Greenwell's cousin was then excused. Subsequently, Mr. Greenwell informed the trial court that his friend from college, whom he dated twenty-five years prior, was also sitting on the panel. Again, neither Mr. Greenwell nor Mr. Williamson mentioned any relationship with Mr. Danhauer.

         After these preliminary questions were asked, the trial judge introduced Mr. Williamson to the venire panel and asked the following question:

Is anyone represented by Mr. Williamson, or have a relationship that we've not been made aware of that might impair their ability to be fair and impartial in this case? If you'll come forward please. If you feel that your relationship would prohibit you from being fair and impartial.

         The taped recording of this portion of the record, which the Court has carefully reviewed, focuses solely on the bench. There is no indication that anyone, including Mr. Danhauer, had any reaction to this question. In fact, the trial judge went on to her next question instantaneously, without any pause or hesitation.

         Later during voir dire, when Mr. Greenwell took over questioning, Mr. Williamson was once again introduced to the venire panel. Mr. Williamson's wife, [3] who was sitting next to Mr. Williamson at the attorney's table, was also introduced to the venire panel. Again, Mr. Danhauer's relationship to Mr. Williamson was not disclosed to the Court.

         On July 13, 2015, the trial court conducted a hearing on Appellant's motion for a new trial, during which Mr. Danhauer testified. Mr. Danhauer claimed that when the trial judge asked if anyone was related to Mr. Williamson, he raised his hand and stood up to make his way to the bench. However, before Mr. Danhauer reached the bench he returned to his seat because the trial judge qualified her question by stating that the relationship would need to impede the juror's ability to make an impartial and fair decision. Consequently, Mr. Danhauer did not believe he was obligated to inform the trial court about his familial relationship with Mr. Williamson because he assumed he could still be fair and impartial.

         Defense counsel argued that he had no recollection of Mr. Danhauer . making any affirmative acknowledgment following the trial judge's question. Defense counsel maintained that had he known about the relationship, he would have asked the trial court to remove Mr. Danhauer for cause, or at the very least placed the matter on the record. Defense counsel also provided the trial court with numerous cases where a new trial ...

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