You Have A Constitutional Right To A Fair Trial, Not A Separate Trial

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A criminal defendant has a right to a trial, of course, but not to separate trials on separate charges. That principle was recently reinforced by the Nebraska Supreme Court in State v. Knutson.

In this case, Mr. Knutson was charged with was accused of inappropriate and abusive behavior against four different children. For one child, Mr. Knutson was charged with child abuse and using an electronic communications device to entice a child. For two of the children, Mr. Knutson was charged with third degree sexual assault of a child (against each child). And for the fourth child, Mr. Knutson was charged with child abuse.

The State asked for joinder of all the cases, meaning that all of the charges against Mr. Knutson would be tried together to the same jury. Mr. Knutson opposed the joinder, saying to try all those cases at the same time would unfairly prejudice him. The State’s request for joinder was granted, and Mr. Knutson was convicted of all charges except for the ones against the first child. Mr. Knutson appealed his conviction, in part by claiming that the joinder violated his right to a fair trial.

The Nebraska Supreme Court began by observing that a defendant does not have a constitutional right to separate trials for separate charges. Under Nebraska law, charges may be joined if they are “are of the same or similar character or are based on the same act or transaction or on two or more acts or transactions connected together or constituting parts of a common scheme or plan.”  The law further provides that “[i]f it appears that a defendant or the state would be prejudiced by a joinder of offenses . . . for trial together, the court may order an election for separate trials of counts, indictments, informations, or complaints, grant a severance of defendants, or provide whatever other relief justice requires.”

In other words, to determine if charges should be joined is a two-step process. First, a court looks to see if the charges are “of the same or similar character or based on the same act.” If not, the charges can be joined. If they are, then the charges can be joined unless doing so would prejudice a defendant so that the defendant could not get a fair trial.

In this case, the Supreme Court found that the charges should be properly joined. Although the charges were based on different statute, the Court found that because the charges were all sexual in nature and because the victims were all roughly the same age, they were similar enough to be joined.

The Court then determined that Mr. Knutson’s right to a fair trial was not prejudiced by the joinder. The jury in this case was specifically instructed to consider the evidence for each charge separately, and Mr. Knutson made no specific additional showing of prejudice. The fact that the jury did, in fact, acquit (meaning find not guilty) Knutson of some charges went a long way for the Court in determining that there was no prejudice in the joinder.

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