Carver County District Court File No. 10-CR-10-1003
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Mark Metz, Carver County Attorney, Peter Ivy, Assistant County Attorney, Chaska, Minnesota (for respondent)
David W. Merchant, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Davi Axelson, Assistant Public Defender (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Schellhas, Presiding Judge; Hudson, Judge; and Stauber, Judge.
Appellant Caroline Marie Rice challenges her conviction of three counts of deprivation of parental rights in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.26, subd. 1 (2010). Because the cumulative effect of various evidentiary rulings, an erroneous jury instruction, and prejudicial judicial conduct deprived appellant of her due process right to a fair trial, we reverse appellant's convictions and remand for a new trial.
Appellant and B.R. are the parents of five children including three daughters, K.R., L.R., and A.R., born in 1989, 1991, and 1997, respectively. As part of the divorce proceedings, B.R. was given full legal and physical custody of the three youngest children, including A.R. An order for protection was issued in 2008 prohibiting appellant from having contact with A.R. except through supervised visits, and the order was extended for two years in 2009.
On October 31, 2010, A.R. ran away from home. Hand-written letters that A.R. sent to the Minnetonka Police Department, Carver County Sheriff's Office, and B.R. stated that A.R. had run away from home and that she was safe.
On November 24, 2010, appellant was apprehended while trying to cross into the United States from Canada. Appellant admitted that she had gone to Canada with two of her daughters, L.R. and A.R., who were waiting for her at a restaurant in Michigan two miles from the border. Appellant was interviewed by Officer George Brown, a customs officer. Officer Brown testified that appellant stated that "because of the protection order they would have been separated, so she chose to withdraw her application [to Canada] for refugee status" and return to the United States. According to Brown, appellant admitted that she had violated the outstanding protection order and that "[s]he'd been with her daughters for at least two weeks I think she said and she planned to rejoin them as soon as she got through customs."
Carver County detectives recorded an interview with A.R. upon her return to Minnesota, on November 29, 2010. A.R. stated that she had been hidden by a variety of people over the past 30 days, had met up with appellant in Canada, but had only spent one day with her when appellant was arrested.
Appellant was charged with one count of concealing a minor child from the child's parent "where the action manifests an intent substantially to deprive that parent of parental rights" in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.26, subd. 1(1); one count of obtaining, retaining, or failing to return a minor child from or to the parent in violation of a court order, "where the action manifests an intent substantially to deprive that parent of rights to parenting time or custody, " in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.26, subd. 1(3); and one count of causing or contributing to a child being a runaway, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.26, subd. 1(8).
Appellant pleaded not guilty and for all three counts sought to raise an affirmative defense under Minn. Stat. § 609.26, subd. 2(1) (2010), that she reasonably believed her actions were necessary to protect A.R. from physical or sexual assault or substantial emotional harm by B.R. In a pre-trial motion, appellant attempted to introduce 273 pages of documents in support of this defense. The district court excluded the documents because they all related to various events occurring more than two years before the dates of the alleged offenses and were therefore not relevant and because they did not "show that at the moment in time [appellant] allegedly violated the statute . . . she was under a reasonable belief . . . [that A.R.] was in physical or emotional danger." Determining that the evidence was unreliable, the district court also excluded medical evidence of an alleged incident of abuse upon A.R. by B.R. in 2008 because the police had concluded that the claim was unfounded.
On the date of trial, appellant dismissed her public defender and represented herself. During her opening statement, appellant discussed numerous inappropriate and potentially prejudicial subjects including judicial bias during her divorce proceeding, losing her nursing license because a county social worker (and witness in this case) held a grudge against her, the contents of discussions that had occurred outside the presence of the jury, her living conditions while she was in jail, and the district court's ruling in her favor in a prior family law matter. The prosecutor raised objections throughout appellant's opening statement, which were generally sustained. The district court, after warning appellant twice that her opening statement was becoming repetitive while continuing to drift toward irrelevant topics, eventually required appellant to end her opening statement.
At a bench conference after the state's first witness testified, the prosecutor complained that appellant's attempts to introduce inadmissible evidence put the state "at a real disadvantage. It appears I am beating up on Ms. Rice, denying her the right to counsel." The district court agreed, reminded appellant to focus only on topics relating to the underlying charges, and delivered a warning:
And I'm telling you now very clearly on the record that I intend to be much more proactive in stepping in and stopping you on your lines of questioning. I'm going to do that because I believe if I don't do that that is a great prejudice to the state because, in fact, it does look like they're beating up on you, that they are stacking the deck against you. That's not the case. So I'm going to be more active in that so that if anybody is going to be looking like a bully in this proceeding, if you will, in the eyes of the jury, it's going to be me. So that we can continue to try to maintain a level playing field to you that is fair to you as well as the state.
When appellant raised improper subjects during her direct examination, the district court followed through on its warning and began interrupting improper lines of questioning without requiring an objection. The district court interrupted appellant's direct examination of L.R. more than 90 times and interrupted appellant's direct examination of A.R. at least 45 times. The state occasionally raised objections upon which the district court ruled, but the majority of evidentiary rulings during appellant's witness examinations were made sua sponte. The district court does not appear to have interrupted the state at any point during the trial.
The district court's frustration with appellant during these interruptions became increasingly apparent. When appellant cross-examined a Carver County social worker about reports that B.R. was verbally and physically abusive to his children, the district court sustained a state objection, telling appellant that "you can't just throw things out there like you're lobbing hand grenades." The district court continued this theme later when appellant asked L.R. whether B.R. may have ever sedated A.R., telling appellant, "Ms. Rice, you cannot continue to lob hand grenades." He continued his admonishment, stating that appellant may not "[j]ust lob hand grenades out there. . . . I don't know what they are, they're not questions . . . . You continue to ask questions that are not germane to these proceedings. . . . You ask those questions of witnesses where it doesn't fit."
Appellant later asked L.R., "Did you ever see your dad hit or hurt [A.R.]?" After sustaining an objection that the question "assumes facts not in evidence, " the district court interjected, telling L.R., "You're not going to answer that. . . ." The district court then asked appellant, "[d]o you have any basis for lobbing that one out there? . . . Do you have any factual basis for . . . asking that question?" The district court continued, "Don't start asking another question. You throw something out there and you just leave it hanging. . . . Throwing out an allegation about dad having harmed [L.R.] and/or [A.R.]. . . . There is no foundation laid here." L.R. eventually testified about an incident when B.R. dragged K.R. down a flight of stairs by her ankles while L.R. and A.R. watched.
Appellant asked a later witness, "Have the children ever reported to you that anyone else has ever hit or hurt them?" Despite L.R.'s earlier testimony, the district court interjected, "Excuse me, there is no testimony that anyone has hit or hurt them except for the specific instances you've talked about and there is no person identified in those instances. So you're suggesting or implying that [B.R.] has hit or hurt them. That's not in evidence. You may want to rethink that question." Appellant replied that her daughter's testimony provided that evidence, to which the district court replied, "I've not heard any such testimony because they haven't been on the stand. . . . [K.R.] has not been on the stand." The district court added that there was "no testimony that [B.R.] hurt them or hit them."
A.R. testified that two restraining orders had been taken out against B.R. in the past "because he hurt me." Her testimony about these incidents was brief and was punctuated by frequent interruptions by the district court. A.R. was having trouble remembering details about each incident, leading the district court to cut off questioning about these incidents because A.R. had "provided the answers she has available by her own recall."
Because appellant introduced sufficient evidence to have the jury consider her affirmative defense that her actions were necessary to protect A.R. from abuse by B.R., the district court instructed the jury on this defense as part of its instructions for each offense. See Minn. Stat. § 609.26, subd. 2(1). Following closing arguments, the district court provided additional instructions. The jury found appellant guilty of all three counts. This appeal follows.
Our justice system affords every criminal defendant the constitutional right to due process in the form of a fair trial, which includes the right to present a complete defense. State v. Voorhees, 596 N.W.2d 241, 249 (Minn. 1999). Appellant argues that she was denied her right to a fair trial by various evidentiary errors, an erroneous jury instruction, and prejudicial judicial conduct. We will analyze each issue in turn to determine whether an error occurred. But because each alleged error impacted appellant's ability to assert her affirmative defense under Minn. Stat. § 609.26, subd. 2(1), we will analyze the cumulative effect of those errors to determine whether a new trial is required.
Appellant argues that the district court erred by denying her motion to present evidence regarding past incidents of abuse by B.R. against appellant, A.R., and her sisters. "A criminal defendant has the right to a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense." State v. Penkaty, 708 N.W.2d 185, 201 (Minn. 2006) (citation omitted). It is an affirmative defense to all three counts against appellant if "the person reasonably believed the action taken was necessary to protect the child from physical or sexual assault or substantial emotional harm." Minn. Stat. § 609.26, subd. 2(1). The defense has the burden of production in raising this defense. See State v. Cannady, 727 N.W.2d 403, 407 (Minn. 2007). "The burden of production is '[a] party's duty to introduce enough evidence on an issue to have the issue decided by the fact-finder.'" State v. Kramer, 668 N.W.2d 32, 37 n.2 (Minn.App. 2003) ...