“I would like to say he’s guilty.”

State v. Irby, No. 70418-4-I (Wash. Ct. App. Apr. 20, 2015). 

The Skagit County Courthouse, where a voluntarily absent Terrance Irby was tried (courtesy cmh2315fl / flickr).

The Skagit County Courthouse, where a voluntarily absent Terrance Irby was tried (courtesy cmh2315fl / flickr).

James Rock was found bludgeoned to death with weapons he kept in his own bedroom. Rock’s blood and blood-covered weapons were found in a truck belonging to Terrance Irby, who was charged with aggravated murder in the first degree. 

Irby insisted on proceeding pro se. The trial court appointed three different standby attorneys for him, but Irby fired all of them before trial could begin. Then, on the first day of voir dire, Irby “voluntarily absented himself,” in the words of the court of appeals. Irby told the judge he didn’t think he could get a fair trial, and saw no need to participate.

So voir dire went ahead without Irby (or standby counsel, it seems). At voir dire, one prospective juror was asked if she thought she could listen to both sides and hear the whole story. This juror responded, “I would like to say he’s guilty.” Nobody followed up on this answer. Later, another prospective juror with connections to police was asked if she thought she could put aside those connections and decide the case based on the evidence. She answered that she thought it would “be hard for me just because he”—the defendant, Irby—“isn’t represented at all.” Both jurors were seated. Irby was convicted.

The court of appeals now reverses, holding that the juror who “would like to say he’s guilty” demonstrated actual bias and should have been excused. Despite Irby’s absence from the courtroom—and his consequent failure to object to this juror—seating the juror constitutes “manifest constitutional error” that requires reversal and remand for a new trial.