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Indiana Supreme Court Reverses Involuntary Manslaughter Conviction Where Trial Court Denied Defense Counsel Opportunity to Directly Voir Dire Prospective Jurors

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Indiana reversed Kyle N. Doroszko’s involuntary manslaughter conviction because the trial court denied defense counsel the opportunity to voir dire prospective jurors directly in violation of Indiana Trial Rule 47(D).

During a prearranged marijuana transaction, Traychon Taylor attempted to rob Doroszko. A struggle ensued, and Doroszko shot and killed Taylor. The State charged Doroszko with murder and a firearm enhancement. At a pretrial hearing, the judge explained that he “ask[s] the voir dire,” but he welcomed the parties’ submission of questions for the court’s consideration.

Dorszko’s counsel subsequently filed a pretrial motion with the court, requesting to question the veniremen “personally, directly and verbally.” The trial court denied the motion, so defense counsel submitted 60 juror questions to the court, including 16 questions related to self-defense. Shortly before the jury was empaneled, defense counsel renewed its objection to the court’s procedure for voir dire. The trial court again overruled the objection.

Doroszko’s claim of self-defense was the focus of the trial with the State arguing he was not entitled to the defense because there was a causal connection between the crime of drug dealing and Taylor’s death. The jury found Doroszko guilty of the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter, and he timely appealed.

The Court of Appeals (“COA”) concluded the trial court erred by not allowing defense counsel to question prospective jurors directly but determined the error was harmless. The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer, vacating the COA’s opinion.

The Court observed “[t]rial courts enjoy broad discretion in regulating the form and substance of voir dire.” Logan v. State, 729 N.E.2d 125 (Ind. 2000). “But in exercising this discretion, they must adhere to [the state Supreme Court’s] Trial Rules.” Cliver v. State, 666 N.E.2d 59 (Ind. 1996). Trial Court Rule 47(D) provides: “The court shall permit the parties or their attorneys to conduct the examination of prospective jurors, and may conduct examination itself. The court’s examination may include questions, if any, submitted in writing by any party or attorney. If the court conducts the examination, it shall permit the parties or their attorneys to supplement the examination by further inquiry.…”

The Court explained “[b]y directing that the court ‘shall’ permit the parties or their counsel to examine prospective jurors, the rule forecloses any trial court discretion to supplant the parties’ examination with their own.” Indiana C.R. Comm’n v. Indianapolis Newspapers, Inc., 716 N.E.2d 943 (Ind. 1999).

The Court buttressed its interpretation by referring to Rule 47(D)’s history. Former Rule 47(D) directed that “the trial court ‘may’ permit the parties or their attorneys to examine prospective jurors, or the court could conduct the examination itself.” But the state Supreme Court amended the rule in 1987, changing “may” to “shall.” Emphasizing the word “shall” in Logan, the Court held a “trial court erred by not permitting the defendant or his attorney ‘to directly question prospective jurors concerning their views.’”

The Court stated even “if there is an error in a trial, we do not reverse when the ‘probable impact, in light of all the evidence in the case, is sufficiently minor so as not to affect the substantial rights of the parties,’ App. R. 66(A), which is to say the error was harmless.” Logan. The Court concluded the error in the instant case was not sufficiently minor to affirm the conviction. Doroszko was prevented from questioning prospective jurors directly and ask follow-up questions, which “adversely impacted his ability to employ his for-cause and peremptory challenges,” according to the Court. And the Court had earlier recognized “it is particularly important to allow for adequate voir dire regarding self-defense.” Everly v. State, 395 N.E.2d 254 (Ind. 1979). Thus, the Court held the trial court erred by denying defense counsel the opportunity to directly examine the prospective jurors in contravention of Rule 47(D), and the error was not harmless.

Accordingly, the Court reversed Doroszko’s conviction and remanded for a new trial. See: Doroszko v. State, 201 N.E.3d 1151 (Ind. 2023).  

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Doroszko v. State

 

 

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