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Appeals court reverses conviction after finding presiding judge's words possibly coercive


Scott Cooper October 15th, 2009

It's not unusual for a convicted felon to have both his conviction and long-term prison sentence thrown out due in large part to the judge who oversaw the trial. But in most overturned cases, it...

It's not unusual for a convicted felon to have both his conviction and long-term prison sentence thrown out due in large part to the judge who oversaw the trial. But in most overturned cases, it was the judge's actions that led to the reversal, such as allowing evidence to be entered when it should not have.

But in one Oklahoma County case, it was the judge's words, not actions, leading to a new day in court.

Armand Rashawn Johnson was tried and convicted of several charges stemming from a home invasion in October of 2007. Johnson was found guilty of armed robbery, assault and battery with a deadly weapon and kidnapping, among other charges. He received more than 40 years imprisonment.

Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott presided over the trial held last year. In their brief to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, Johnson's attorneys claim Elliott's remarks to the jury during the voir dire, or jury selection, phase of the trial were improper, as well as his treatment of one jury member after the trial.

According to court documents, a female member of the jury was found by the bailiff crying in the hallway outside the courtroom. She was taken to the judge's chambers and said she did not think the guilty verdict was right, although the verdict had just been handed down with all 12 members agreeing. Johnson's brief claims this was the exchange:

EXCHANGE

Elliott: "When I asked you if those were your verdicts, you said, 'Yes,' did you not?" Juror: "Yeah, but I didn't really understand what you meant." Elliott: "So you lied to me?" Juror: "I didn't understand what you meant at the time." Elliott: "What part of that did you not understand, ma'am, when I said, 'Are those your verdicts'? What part of that is hard to understand?" Juror: "I don't know." Elliott: "So are they your verdicts or not your verdicts?" Juror: "No." Elliott: "So you lied to me under oath?"

Johnson's attorneys asked for a mistrial, which Elliott denied.

Elliott had no comment.

Johnson's attorneys also point out statements Elliott made to the jury that may have influenced them in their decision making. According to court records, Elliott referred to the cost of the trial and said that if jurors did not do their job properly, it would cost taxpayers $50,000.

Elliott also made statements the defense felt diminished the presumption of innocence.

"Someone can commit a sexual assault on the 50-yard line on a Saturday afternoon in October in Owen Stadium," he reportedly said, "with 75,000 people watching and all 75,000 people videotaping the act, and they're still presumed innocent, and the presumption continues until proven otherwise."

Ultimately, the appeals court agreed with the defense in their reversal of Johnson's case.

"Many of the remarks of the trial judge during voir dire were improper and may have had a coercive effect upon the jury," the appeals court wrote.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he intends to file charges against Johnson and pursue another trial.

"The reversal didn't have to do with the evidence," Prater said. "The court felt Judge Elliott was heavy-handed." "Scott Cooper

 
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