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State v. Whitaker

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, Second Division

October 25, 2016




          Stephen P. Sokoloff, Prosecuting Attorney of Dunklin County.

          Before Lynch, P.J., Rahmeyer, J., and Scott, J.

          PER CURIAM.

         Jessie Whitaker appeals his bench-trial conviction for forcible rape, charging plain error in the court's finding that he waived his right to jury trial as part of a polygraph agreement with the prosecutor. Because the record does not demonstrate with unmistakable clarity that Whitaker waived this right, we reverse and remand.[1] State v. Bibb, 702 S.W.2d 462, 466 (Mo. banc 1985); State v. Freeman, 189 S.W.3d 605, 609 (Mo.App. 2006).

         Background and Analysis

         Whitaker could waive trial by jury - and be held to that waiver - if he did so knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. See State v. Baxter, 204 S.W.3d 650, 653 (Mo. banc 2006). Constitutionally "the waiver must appear in the record with 'unmistakable clarity.'" Id. (quoting Bibb, 702 S.W.2d at 466; also citing Rule 27.01(b)[2]). Absent an unmistakably-clear waiver, it is said that Whitaker "is entitled to a remand for a new trial under plain error review" in this felony case. Freeman, 189 S.W.3d at 609; see also State v. Beam, 334 S.W.3d 699, 704 (Mo.App. 2011).

         Best practice thus called for the trial court to question Whitaker personally on the record to ensure that he understood his jury-trial right, understood what would be lost by a waiver, had discussed the issue with defense counsel, and voluntarily intended to waive the right. Baxter, 204 S.W.3d at 655. Then Whitaker would "have no grounds [now] to contend that his waiver was ineffective." Id.

         This never happened, which initially was not the court's fault. When the prosecutor announced at an August 2013 hearing that "a polygraph agreement" had been reached, no mention was made of a jury waiver and no writing was offered to the court. The court was advised only that Whitaker (who had been in jail two years in lieu of a $500, 000 cash-only bond), should be fitted with a GPS tracker that Friday, then released from jail for a week, with a polygraph scheduled the following Wednesday and Whitaker returning to jail the next day. Having been told only this, the court questioned Whitaker only to assure that he understood his one-week release and when to return to jail.[3]

         Months later (January 22, 2014), the prosecution did not object, complain, or allege waiver when the defense asked for a jury setting and the court scheduled the case for a jury trial.[4] Not until three more months had passed (April 9, 2014) did the state demand a bench trial, charging for the first time of record that Whitaker "had waived jury trial in connection with the polygraph agreement." The court set the issue for a future hearing, then heard argument twice, on June 19 and 25, 2014. Defense counsel argued that Whitaker signed the polygraph agreement, but changed his mind, did not take the scheduled test, and thus should still get a jury trial.

         Although Whitaker attended all these hearings and two later ones where the jury-trial issue was revisited, the court never questioned him personally on the record per Baxter, 204 S.W.3d at 655, in ruling that Whitaker had waived his right to jury trial. Thus we must decide whether the record otherwise demonstrates with unmistakable clarity a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent jury waiver applicable to this case. Id. at 654. For several reasons, we cannot conclude that it does.

         First, as noted, the prosecution did not object or claim waiver when, long after the polygraph agreement and Whitaker's change of heart, the defense asked for a jury-trial date and the court scheduled a jury trial. An assistant prosecutor handled that hearing, but he had some prior experience with the case. At any rate, it seems impossible that the prosecution would acquiesce in this request for and scheduling of a jury trial had an unmistakably-clear waiver been of record or even just in the state's own file.

         That leaves, of relevant record, only a polygraph agreement that fails to move the needle toward unmistakable clarity in these circumstances. Having reproduced that agreement in the appendix, we need offer just a few observations:

1. The state could and certainly should have emphasized and clarified its waiver provisions if, as it appears, it planned to notify the court only if and after a dispute arose, a tactic inimical to timely and effective Baxter best-practice questioning so "the defendant will have no grounds later to contend that his waiver was ineffective." Id. at 655.
2. The state did not, but easily could have made it patently clear that Whitaker was waiving a jury irrevocably, upon signature, no matter what, or in any comparable terms if that truly was the state's intent. When shunning the benefit of a Baxter best-practice inquiry, the state needed to draw or edit its form document to carry its unmistakable-clarity burden alone, if necessary.
3. The state arguably foresaw that Whitaker might not take the test (#2, "in the event that Defendant shall submit to such polygraph examination …."), but did not expressly provide for jury waiver in that circumstance.

         The state's waiver argument from this agreement may be a reasonable one, or even the best of several reasonable document interpretations, but the constitutional standard is "unmistakable clarity." Id. at 653. Absent Baxter best-practice questioning, this record is not unmistakably clear as to jury waiver, so we ...

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