Appeals Court Upholds Verdict in “Sleeping Judge” Case
During a criminal trial, the judge is responsible for the things that go on in his or her courtroom. He or she oversees the proceedings, maintains order, rules on evidentiary objections, and ensures that the details of the case are properly recorded. But, what if the judge does not appear to be in complete control? What if he or she, for example, were to fall asleep during the proceedings? Would the defendant in such a case have grounds to ask for a new trial? An appeals court in Illinois was recently asked to determine the answers to such questions.
Back in 2014, a Whiteside County courtroom was the setting for the trial of a man accused of numerous counts of first-degree murder. During the course of the trial, there were several instances where the lights in the courtroom were dimmed so that video depositions and evidence could be presented and heard. On at least one those occasions, the presiding judge dozed off while video evidence was being shown and, according to court documents, had to be poked awake by a court clerk.
The defendant’s attorney asked the court to make a note of what had happened for the record. The next day, the defense orally motioned for a declaration of a mistrial, but the court declined, reasoning that the judge falling asleep was not “anything fundamental that affect[ed] this Defendant’s rights.”
The trial continued, and the defendant was convicted and sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in prison. The defendant immediately asked for a new trial and was refused, so a formal appeal was filed.
Structural and Harmless Errors
The defendant’s appeal claimed that the judge falling asleep constituted a per se reversible error. A per se reversible error is a procedural mistake that is so substantial that it creates the presumption of prejudice. The appellate court acknowledged that a mistrial should generally be awarded when a mistake occurs that affects “the fundamental fairness of the trial,” and an automatic reversal of the conviction would be appropriate if the error was considered to be structural. In this case, however, the appeals court did not hold the judge’s sleeping to be a structural error or a per se reversible error. Instead, the issue was subject to harmless error analysis.
If a mistake at trial is found to be harmless to the overall nature of the case and the rights of the defendant, it may be effectively ignored. In this case, the defendant was convicted due to overwhelming physical evidence. Additionally, the judge was not the trier of fact; that responsibility fell on the jury. Finally, there was no indication that the judge was required to rule on evidentiary objections or any other issue at that the time that he was asleep, meaning that his unintentional nap changed nothing about the proceedings. The appellate court affirmed the denial of a mistrial and upheld the defendant’s conviction.
Call Us for Help
While you may be wondering how anyone could fall asleep during a murder trial, strange things can and do happen in the courtroom. If you or someone you love has been convicted under unusual circumstances, you may have grounds to file an appeal, but you need to act quickly. Contact an experienced Will County criminal defense attorney to discuss your options. Call 815-740-4025 for a free consultation today.