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State v. Maestas - 2012 UT 46, 299 P.3d 892 (Sup.Ct.)

Rule:

Errors raised and brief on appeal in death penalty cases will be reviewed even though no proper objection was made at trial. A conviction will be reversed based upon such errors only if they meet the manifest and prejudicial error standard. In most circumstances the term "manifest injustice" is synonymous with the plain error standard. To be considered plain or manifest error, an error must be both harmful and obvious. An error is obvious only if the law governing the error was clear at the time the alleged error was made. An error is harmful if, absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for the appellant, or phrased differently, if confidence in the verdict or sentence is undermined.

Facts:

Defendant was convicted of aggravated murder under Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-202 and aggravated burglary under Utah Code Ann. § 76-6-203 and was sentenced to death. Defendant was denied of his for-cause challenge in the trial court. Defendant used a peremptory challenge to remove a juror and was required to show prejudice.  On defendant’s appeal, the state supreme court affirmed his conviction.

Issue:

Was the trial court’s responses to defendant’s for-cause challenge constituted an error harmful to him that may warrant reversal of conviction?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

Defendant failed to show prejudice to warrant removal of juror for cause. The trial court's occasional failures to admonish the jury did not result in harm to defendant. Because it was not a critical stage of the proceeding, and because the response did not harm defendant, neither his right to be present nor his right to counsel were violated by the judge's responses to the two notes from the jury during the guilt phase. Further, because defendant failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he had the requisite intellectual deficits, he did not qualify as mentally retarded under the Exemption Statute, Utah Code Ann §§ 77-15a-101 to 77-15a-106.

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