A Drew County man, sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his 2-year-old stepdaughter has lost his appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
In a June 2013 plea agreement, Daniel Pedraza, who was charged with capital murder and facing a possible death sentence, agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and be sentenced by a jury for the February 2012 torture and beating death of his 2-year-old stepdaughter Aubriana Coke.
The plea agreement came over the weekend after nearly eight hours of jury voir dire during which Pedraza’s attorneys made a motion to quash the entire jury panel. As part of the plea bargain, Pedraza agreed to waive any and all errors that may have occurred up to that time. Pedraza, however, reserved the right of appeal any error occuring during his sentencing for first degree murder.
On appeal, Pedrazza contended that Circuit Court Judge Bynum Gibson erred when he refused to permit additional voir dire of the selected but unsworn jury following the plea agreement.
When the selected, but not yet sworn, jury appeared in court the following Monday for the sentencing phase of the trial, Pedraza’s attorneys Jeff Rosenzweig and Birc Morledge sought to ask or to have the circuit court ask the jurors additional questions concerning the change in circumstances that had occurred over the weekend.
The attorneys wanted to determine whether the plea developments had caused any selected but unsworn jurors to no longer be qualified. They contended that three specific questions concerning the charge reduction and differing range of punishment would have elicited from the jurors whether any of them would be biased against him because he had pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of first-degree murder.
Gibson denied the request and the sentencing trial began.
Pedraza claims that Gibson’s denial of the additional voir dire violated his constituional right to due process and a fair and impartial jury.
The state argued that the issue is not appealable because Pedraza accepted the selected jury as a condition of the plea agreement.
Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Donald Corbin writing for majority said the record does not support the state’s argument. Justices Karen Baker and Josephine Hart dissented.
“While the circuit court did state that it wanted an agreement that the same jury would be used, the record simply does not bear out the State’s contention that the parties stipulated to the qualifications of the selected but unsworn jurors to pronounce sentence on the reduced charge of first-degree murder,” Corbin wrote. “Moreover, the circuit court accepted (Pedraza’s) plea in open court without such express stipulation or any discussion of the matter and without objection from the State. Therefore, contrary to the State’s assertion otherwise, we conclude that the preclusion of further voir dire was not an integral part of the plea agreement. Accordingly, because (Pedraza’s) assignment of error involves nonjurisdictional issues that occurred subsequent to his guilty plea, we address the merits of his argument on appeal.”
Corbin said the extent and scope of voir dire is within the sound discretion of the circuit court, and the latitude of that discretion is wide.
“We do not reverse the circuit court’s restriction of voir dire examination unless that discretion is clearly abused,” Corbin wrote. “Abuse of discretion occurs when the circuit court acts arbitrarily or groundlessly. The fact that the rules allow the circuit court to permit such additional questioning as he or she deems proper underscores the discretion vested in the circuit court.
“The State responds, alternatively, that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to allow additional proffered voir dire,” Corbin wrote. “We agree.”
Corbin said the Constitution does not dictate a particular voir dire process; it demands only that the process be “adequate… to identify unqualified jurors.”
He said the Supreme Court’s review of the record revealed no abuse of the circuit court’s discretion and no violation of Pedraza’s rights to due process and an impartial jury.
“First, the venire had been excused, and (Pedraza) had exhausted all his peremptory challenges, although there were two alternates,” Corbin wrote. “Second, and most important, the record does not demonstrate that the circuit court acted groundlessly or arbitrarily without thought. The record shows that the circuit court had already determined that the jurors were qualified and therefore capable of rendering an impartial verdict. The jurors had been questioned about potential personal relationships with the parties, the nature of the crime, the age of the victim, and the effects of pretrial publicity. In addition, they had been questioned about punishment and the duty to consider mitigation evidence, as well as their duty to follow the law and render an impartial opinion regardless of their personal views. In addition, the record reflects that the circuit court considered the State’s response to the proffered additional questions that the additional questions were unnecessary because the case was in no different posture than if the circuit court had directed a verdict on capital murder down to first degree murder.”
Redraza raised a second point on appeal that was contingent on a reversal. If the Supreme Court had reversed, Pedraza asked that the Supreme Court order the “mandatory recusal and prospective disqualification of the circuit court judge from further participation in this case based on the judge’s alleged personal bias toward (Pedraza’s) defense team and in particular toward lead defense counsel, Jeff Rosenzweig.
“Because we affirm, however, the issue of the judge’s bias and possible disqualification from future participation in this case need not be addressed.
But, because Pedraza received a sentence of life imprisonment the Court was required to review the record for all objections, motions, and requests that were decided adversely to Pedraza.
The Court found no prejudicial error.
Justices Karen Baker and Josephine Hart dissented, saying the appeal should be dismissed because the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction in the matter.
“The majority emphasizes that there was no stipulation that the jury was qualified to serve and takes this as an indication that the preclusion of further voir dire was not an integral part of the plea agreement,” Baker wrote. “However, the record makes clear that the circuit court’s acceptance of the plea agreement was conditioned upon Pedraza’s agreement that the seated jury would sentence him. Additionally, Pedraza has not shown that any juror was prejudiced against him by his guilty plea. We will not presume prejudice where an error is alleged.
“An appellant must present specific facts to show prejudice because we will not reverse for harmless error,” Baker wrote. “Indeed, if Pedraza’s true concern was that the jury was not qualified to sentence him on the reduced charge of first-degree murder, the only relief available to him would have been to request that the circuit court allow him to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial on the original charge of capital murder. Instead, Pedraza sought to keep the benefit of the plea agreement while rejecting the condition upon which the agreement was made. Because Pedraza appeals from an issue that was a condition integral to the circuit court’s acceptance of the plea agreement, we do not have jurisdiction to hear this appeal and it should be dismissed.”
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Jury selection for Pedraza trial starts Thursday (pretrial feature with photos)