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State v. Thompson

Supreme Court of West Virginia

April 5, 2018

STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
v.
FRANK GENE THOMPSON, Defendant Below, Petitioner

          Submitted: February 7, 2018

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Boone County The Honorable William S. Thompson, Judge Civil Action No. 15-F-95

          Dana F. Eddy, Esq. Counsel for Petitioner.

          Patrick Morrisey, Esq. Attorney Genera Gordon L. Mowen, II, Esq. Assistant Attorney General Counsel for Re spo ndent.

          CHIEF JUSTICE WORKMAN delivered the Opinion of the Court.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "In reviewing challenges to findings and rulings made by a circuit court, we apply a two-pronged deferential standard of review. We review the rulings of the circuit court concerning a new trial and its conclusion as to the existence of reversible error under an abuse of discretion standard, and we review the circuit court's underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard. Questions of law are subject to a de novo review." Syl. Pt. 3, State v. Vance, 207 W.Va. 640, 535 S.E.2d 484 (2000).

         2. "'"The right to a trial by an impartial, objective jury in a criminal case is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article III, Section 14 of the West Virginia Constitution." Syllabus point 4, [in part, ] State v. Peacher, 167 W.Va. 540, 280 S.E.2d 559 (1981).' Syllabus point 4, in part, State v. Derr, 192 W.Va. 165, 451 S.E.2d 731 (1994)." Syl. Pt. 2, State v. Varner, 212 W.Va. 532, 575 S.E.2d 142 (2002).

         3. "The trial judge in a criminal trial must consistently be aware that he occupies a unique position in the minds of the jurors and is capable, because of his position, of unduly influencing jurors in the discharge of their duty as triers of the facts. This Court has consistently required trial judges not to intimate an opinion on any fact in issue in any manner. In criminal cases, we have frequently held that conduct of the trial judge which indicates his opinion on any material matter will result in a guilty verdict being set aside and a new trial awarded." Syl. Pt. 4, State v. Wotring, 167 W.Va. 104, 279 S.E.2d 182 (1981).

         4. "In the trial of a criminal offense, the presumption of innocence existing in favor of a defendant continues through every stage of the trial until a finding of guilty by the jury." Syl. Pt. 11, State v. Pietranton, 140 W.Va. 444, 84 S.E.2d 774 (1954).

         5. "A criminal defendant challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction takes on a heavy burden. An appellate court must review all the evidence, whether direct or circumstantial, in the light most favorable to the prosecution and must credit all inferences and credibility assessments that the jury might have drawn in favor of the prosecution. The evidence need not be inconsistent with every conclusion save that of guilt so long as the jury can find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Credibility determinations are for a jury and not an appellate court. Finally, a jury verdict should be set aside only when the record contains no evidence, regardless of how it is weighed, from which the jury could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. To the extent that our prior cases are inconsistent, they are expressly overruled." Syl. Pt. 3, State v. Guthrie, 194 W.Va. 657, 461 S.E.2d 163 (1995).

          WORKMAN CHIEF JUSTICE

         A jury found Petitioner Frank Thompson guilty of four felony counts of driving under the influence ("DUI") causing death, two felony counts of child neglect resulting in death, and three misdemeanors. On appeal, Petitioner asserts the trial court's comments deprived him of his constitutional right to a fair trial by an impartial jury. He also challenges the sufficiency of the evidence on the felony convictions.

         After review, we find that the trial court's comments at the beginning of the jury selection process tainted Petitioner's presumption of innocence and deprived him of a fair trial. We therefore reverse Petitioner's convictions. Because the evidence of Petitioner's guilt was otherwise sufficient, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In the early morning hours of September 19, 2014, Petitioner was driving a vehicle on U.S. 119 in Boone County, West Virginia. Four passengers were with Petitioner: his girlfriend, Betty Holstein, their one-year-old-son, Nathaniel Thompson, Ms. Holstein's five-year-old-daughter, Alyssa Bowman, and Ms. Holstein's friend, Rebecca Bias. Petitioner drove the vehicle off the side of the road and it crashed against an embankment about 600 feet away, landed on the passenger side, and caught fire. All of the passengers were killed.

         Following an investigation, Petitioner-who tested positive for methamphetamine following the accident-was arrested and indicted on multiple charges. The case proceeded to trial in March 2016. The jury found Petitioner guilty of six felonies (four counts of DUI causing death and two counts of child neglect resulting in death) and three misdemeanors (reckless driving, driving on a suspended license, second offense, and failure to maintain lane of travel).

         The State instituted recidivist proceedings. [1] Thereafter, the trial court sentenced Petitioner in July 2016.[2]

         We detail the relevant facts more specifically below as they relate to Petitioner's two assignments of error.

          II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The alleged errors raised by Petitioner are subject to particular standards of review, which we set forth in connection with our discussion of them. Generally, however,

[i]n reviewing challenges to findings and rulings made by a circuit court, we apply a two-pronged deferential standard of review. We review the rulings of the circuit court concerning a new trial and its conclusion as to the existence of reversible error under an abuse of discretion standard, and we review the circuit court's underlying factual findings ...

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