by David M. Reutter
On May 26, 2022, the SupremeCourt of North Dakota vacated a state prisoner’s conviction for aggravated assault of a guard because the trial court committed error by instructing the jury on the wrong law under which he was charged.
While held at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in March 2019, prisoner Duane Eldene Landrus, Jr., was instructed to report to the behavior intervention unit. When he refused to leave his cell, an extraction team was called. A guard sergeant testified that as he entered the cell for the removal, Landrus choked him.
In August 2019, Landrus was criminally charged with aggravated assault under N.D.C.C. § 12.1-17-02(1)(c), which bars infliction of “bodily injury or substantial bodily injury to another human being while attempting to inflict serious bodily injury on any human being[.]” The charge was then modified in an amended information to allege violation of N.D.C.C. § 12.1-17-02(1)(a), which bars anyone from “[w]illfully caus[ing] serious bodily injury to another human being[.]”
At the June 2021 trial, the court instructed the jury on the original charge. Neither Landrus nor the State objected, and the jury convicted Landrus. On appeal, Landrus alleged plain error as a result of the erroneous instruction. The state Supreme Court agreed.
Quoting State v. Pemberton, 2019 ND 157, the Court said that “[w]e exercise our power to consider obvious error cautiously and only in exceptional situations where the defendant has suffered serious injustice.” Such error should be corrected only if it “seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings,” the Court added, quoting the same precedent.
So the first question before the Court was this: Was there an error? Yes, the Court said, agreeing with Landrus that the jury was not advised of the applicable law. Though both statutes criminalize assault, the one under which Landrus was charged did not allow him to be found guilty for causing something less than “serious” injury, while the law about which the jury was instructed let it find him guilty for causing only “bodily” injury or “substantial bodily injury.”
Next the Court asked if the error was plain. A “plain” error is a “clear” or “obvious” deviation from current law, the Court said, quoting State v. Olander, 1998 ND 50. Under that standard, it agreed with Landrus that “[i]nstructing the jury on the wrong subdivision of law is an obvious deviation from an applicable legal rule.”
But then the Court also asked: Did the error affect Landrus’ “substantial rights”? Quoting State v. Patterson, 2014 ND 193, the Court said that meant the error “must have been prejudicial, or affected the outcome of the proceeding.” Here the Court said that the erroneous instruction resulted in the failure of the jury to make a finding on every element of the law under which Landrus was charged. That affected his substantial rights, the Court concluded. So the conviction was vacated and the case remanded for a new trial with the proper jury instruction. Landrus was represented before the Court by Grand Forks attorney Kiara C. Kraus-Parr. See: State v. Landrus, 2022 ND 107.
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Related legal case
State v. Landrus
|Cite||2022 ND 107|
|Level||State Supreme Court|