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State v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Montana

March 19, 2019

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
TODD MICHAEL JOHNSON, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: September 26, 2018

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DC 14-0740 Honorable Gregory R. Todd, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Koan Mercer, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Tammy K Plubell, Assistant Attorney General Helena, Montana

          Scott D. Twito, Yellowstone County Attorney, Brett Linneweber, Deputy County Attorney, Billings, Montana

          DIRK SANDEFUR JUSTICE

         ¶1 Defendant Todd Michael Johnson appeals his judgment of conviction on jury verdict in the Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court, Yellowstone County, on the offense of partner or family member assault (PFMA), a felony. We address the following dispositive issue on appeal:

Whether the District Court abused its discretion in denying Johnson's motion to excuse a prospective juror for cause?

         ¶2 We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶3 Based on an alleged assault on May 29, 2014, the State of Montana charged Johnson with PFMA, a felony in violation of § 45-5-206(1)(a), MCA. During jury voir dire on the morning of trial, defense counsel informed the venire that a central fact dispute in the case would be whether Johnson was a "partner" as alleged by the State as an essential element of proof of PFMA. Counsel thus inquired of three prospective jurors whether they could vote "not guilty" if the State proved that Johnson assaulted the alleged victim but was unable to prove that she was his "partner." All three generally responded that they could and would require the State to prove each essential element of the charged PFMA beyond a reasonable doubt.

         ¶4 However, the following colloquy later took place between defense counsel and prospective Juror S.:

Prospective Juror: So you're telling me that... the State has to prove that she is a partner and that he beat her up. If they can't prove that she's a partner or a girlfriend, is that what we're talking about? If they don't prove beyond a reasonable doubt, say, maybe they're just acquaintances, she isn't a partner, they haven't had a relationship, then it's okay that he beat her up?
Defense counsel: No, I'm not saying that it's okay. What I'm asking you is, what if that was the case?
Prospective Juror: If that was the case, I would have a hard time. Because if he truly beat her up, it makes no difference to me whether they were an acquaintance or they were-had a relationship.
Defense counsel: Okay. Even if he's not charged with that? Even if you're-
Prospective Juror: I personally would probably have a problem with that.
Defense counsel: So you would find him guilty because he's a bad man, not because he did ...

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