CHEYENNE — Although it may have found an error in the trial judge’s comments, the Wyoming Supreme Court this week affirmed a guilty verdict in a Laramie County methamphetamine case.
Melanie Dawn Sorensen was found guilty of methamphetamine possession in Laramie County District Court and sentenced to three to five years in prison. She later appealed the verdict based comments made by Judge Steven K. Sharpe during trial and allegedly insufficient evidence.
The Supreme Court examined the judge’s comments for errors, but ultimately affirmed the guilty verdict. However, the justices did emphasize the fact that judges must refrain from any comments or actions in court that may indicate bias.
According to the court opinion:
At Sorensen’s trial, Judge Sharpe told jurors they may want to wear gloves before touching a baggie of methamphetamine that was entered in the case as evidence. Sorensen appealed the verdict based on these remarks, claiming the remarks were either an error per se or a plain error, and there wasn’t enough evidence to support her guilty verdict.
An error per se is when there is assumed prejudice against the defendant, and a plain error is when there is a rule of law that was violated and that violation appears clearly in the court record. A plain error also results in the denial of a substantial right to material prejudice.
The court examined two issues in its opinion: “Did the district court’s comments on the evidence constitute either error per se or, in the alternative, plain error?” and “Was the evidence sufficient to establish the ‘knowledge’ element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt?”
On Oct. 15, 2017, Sorensen was arrested on an outstanding warrant out of Carbon County. During a strip search when she was entering the jail, officers found methamphetamine in her pants that Sorensen was not forthright about.
It was this baggie of meth that Sharpe said jurors might have a problem handling without gloves. He later told prosecutors to “just hold it and parade (the meth) up and down before the jury as a way to properly publish it.”
Sharpe said the jury would have an opportunity to inspect the meth with more detail during jury deliberations if they desired, and the court would have gloves for them.
Throughout these statements, the defense raised no objections.
To prove any error, Sorensen “must show a clear and unequivocal rule of law was violated, the violation clearly appears in the record, and it resulted in denial of a substantial right to her material prejudice.”
She contended the judge’s comments about the meth baggie were improper, and spoke to the weight and evidence quality, which is something the jury is supposed to decide.
While the Supreme Court found no error per se or plain error in the judge’s statements, justices did recognize: “In a trial before a jury, the trial judge must abstain from expressing or indicating, by word, deed, or otherwise, his personal feelings on the weight or quality of the evidence. Comments or expressions of opinion on the evidence which have the tendency to indicate bias on the trial judge’s part are regarded as being an infringement on the jury’s duties and are prejudicial to the defendant.”
However, the Supreme Court didn’t rule on the error, stating “any possible prejudice caused by the judge’s remark regarding the substance in the baggie was vitiated by Ms. Sorensen’s later testimony admitting the baggie found on her person contained methamphetamine.”
The fact of whether the baggie contained meth wasn’t at issue, and the district court’s comments couldn’t inject bias into the trial, according to the opinion filed Wednesday.
This means the court didn’t inject bias into the proceedings or interfere with the jury’s fact-finding process. Sorensen didn’t demonstrate any material prejudice to a substantial right that was brought against her.
As far as sufficient evidence goes, Sorensen said nothing about the pants where the meth was found belonging to someone else until after officers pulled meth out of her pocket. Sorensen also appeared to be looking for something during the search.
Jurors also saw a video of Sorensen wearing the pants during her jail booking, and the Supreme Court found “a rational jury confronted with these facts could reasonably reject Ms. Sorensen’s explanation of events and conclude she knew a baggie of methamphetamine was on her person.”