How a Judge’s Reasonable Doubt Could Lead to a New Trial

Generally speaking, when a court of appeal reverses a judge's ruling, it's because the judge has overstepped their authority. In the case of People v Eddie Carter, the appellate court ruled the judge actually failed to exercise the authority given to him under the law.

People V. Eddie Carter

Eddie Roy Carter was charged with burglarizing a bank ATM vault in 2010. Security officers at the Wells Fargo branch in Thousand Oaks found the door locks removed and part of the ATM cut out and vandalized. A screwdriver found inside the machine had Carter's DNA on it and a pickup truck photographed by surveillance cameras was registered to Carter's father. However, nothing had actually been taken from the bank.

Carter's girlfriend testified that they had been together that evening and were celebrating her 40th birthday the next evening with their friends. Carter's father testified that his son used the truck in a flooring construction business. He also stated that eight to 10 employees had access to the truck and its tools, and the burglar could have been any of them.

What Happens When a Judge Fails to Exert His Authority?

A jury convicted Carter of second-degree commercial burglary in 2013. At his sentencing hearing, Superior Court Judge James Cloninger said he believed Carter's alibi and would have found him not guilty if it had been a non-jury trial. According to the court record, noting that others had access to the incriminating evidence, Cloninger said, "I just don't think the person who (did it) is Mr. Carter."

Nevertheless, after indicating his sincere doubt as to the verdict of guilty, the judge erroneously indicated his power was limited to deciding whether there was enough evidence to support a guilty verdict by the jury, which obviously did not believe the defense alibi. The judge denied a defense motion for a new trial and sentenced Carter to two years and eight months in prison, the minimum term for a defendant who had a previous felony conviction.

However, the Second District Court of Appeal has reversed the sentence, saying that Cloninger misunderstood his role. When considering a request for a new trial, the judge "acts as a 13th juror who is a ‘holdout' for acquittal" and decides whether there is enough "credible evidence" to support a conviction. If he believes there is not enough evidence, he must grant a new trial.

The judge's comments showed that he had a reasonable doubt about Carter's guilt and that he didn't believe the prosecution had met its burden of proof. Because of that, the Court of Appeal overturned Carter's conviction and granted him a new trial.

Speak to an Experienced Attorney

If you or a loved one feel as if a judge did not correctly perform his duties in court, your guilty conviction could be reversed. Speak to Wallin & Klarich today for more information on how we can help you.

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