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Published: Sunday, 3/7/2010

Top court makes right call

IN PROCEEDINGS that were closely watched by advocates for disabled people, the Ohio Supreme Court has decided the only way it could in a case involving a hearing-impaired juror. The high court ruled that while promoting equal access to the courts is a primary concern of the judiciary, the duty of providing a fair trial is paramount.

That's the crux of the court's ruling in the case of a 2002 Ottawa County boating death. The defendant was convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide and involuntary manslaughter in the death of a friend who prosecutors contended had been pushed or fallen overboard.

The defendant said his friend fell from his speedboat as they were returning from Put-in-Bay. Evidence at the trial included a 911 recording made by the defendant that his attorneys urged the jury to study to disprove allegations that he was intoxicated.

A hearing-impaired juror had told the court she would have trouble with an audio recording, but could read transcripts of the call and lip-read if a witness faced her. The judge declined a request by the defendant's lawyers to disqualify the juror for cause. The defense opted not to exercise one of its four discretionary challenges before trial to replace her without cause.

On appeal, attorneys argued that key evidence that might have exonerated the defendant was not fully assessed by a juror who couldn't hear the 911 call to determine critical components such as tone of voice, inflection, and demeanor. The appellate court agreed and ordered a new trial.

By a vote of 5-2, the high court upheld that decision last week, saying the juror's hearing impairment "directly prevented her from completely evaluating the specific evidence from the 911 recording presented in this case and relied on by both the state and the defense." Accessibility to the judicial system is important, but a fair trial takes precedence.

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