Court of Appeals of Alaska (2022)
In Riley v. State, 515 P.3d 1259 (Alaska Ct. App. 2022), the Alaska Court of Appeals held that the superior court prejudiced a criminal defendant by modifying its jury instructions after closing arguments without a compelling reason, after the defendant had relied on the prior instructions. (Id. at 1261). Among other charges, criminal defendant Riley was indicted for two counts of attempted second-degree sexual abuse of a minor. (Id. at 1262). The State and Riley agreed to a packet of jury instructions requiring the State to prove that Riley attempted “penis to genitals” contact (for Count I) and “hand to genitals” contact (for Count II). (Id.). Despite this agreement, the State requested a bench conference with the judge just prior to jury deliberations, requesting removal of the “penis to genitals” and “hand to genitals” language from the jury instructions in favor of the language “sexual contact.” (Id.). Although Riley’s counsel objected, arguing he had relied on the prior instructions during closing arguments, the court agreed to modify its instructions. (Id.). During jury deliberation, the court received a note from the jury detailing its confusion over the revised instructions. (Id.). Riley was convicted on all counts and appealed, alleging that the trial court prejudiced his defense by revising its jury instructions. (Id. at 1264). The court of appeals agreed, noting that absent a compelling reason, a judge may not revise jury instructions after closing arguments. (Id. at 1265–66). The court further found that the revision prejudiced Riley as to Count I because his counsel has specifically relied on the “penis to genitals” language to argue that Riley had not intended any sexual contact. (Id. at 1267–1268). Accordingly, the court overturned Riley’s conviction under Count I, finding that the trial court prejudiced his defense by revising its jury instructions without a compelling reason, after Riley relied on the prior instructions during closing arguments. (Id. at 1268, 1269).