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The Impact of Jury Instructions: The Case of Colton Trent Ketchum


In a case that explores the standards for harm in errors with jury instructions, the Alabama Court of Appeals recently presided over an appeal. This case, Colton Trent Ketchum v. State of Alabama, rose from Mobile County. Ketchum’s case illustrates the Court’s role when reviewing jury instructions, while simultaneously clarifying that certain types of statements are outside of the bounds of Miranda v. Arizona, the longstanding Supreme Court case that requires law enforcement to inform the accused of their rights prior to questioning.

Colton Trent Ketchum was charged with manslaughter after hitting a person with a vehicle, causing his death. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Ketchum’s girlfriend testified that, on the night of the incident, Ketchum had called her, asking for a ride, claiming his aunt’s car had broken down. She agreed, riding with Ketchum to his aunt’s home, where they met with another man. The other man requested a ride home, and he and Ketchum began arguing over a gun. As the argument escalated, the other man exited the car. He threatened Ketchum with a metal bar, coming around the car to drag Ketchum out. Before he could reach Ketchum, Ketchum hit the gas. His girlfriend did not realize the other man had been hit during Ketchum’s escape until she learned about his death from a news broadcast. Ketchum’s girlfriend admitted that her memory of the evening was fuzzy, due to her extensive drug use.

On appeal, Ketchum argued that the circuit court had wrongfully denied his requested jury instruction. Ketchum wanted the jury to disregard his girlfriend’s testimony if they found her to be of bad character. Instead, the circuit court gave a more general instruction regarding witness credibility and bad character evidence. The Court did not grant Ketchum relief on this claim, however, finding any error to this end ultimately harmless. Given that Ketchum had confessed to being the driver, and the extensiveness of his girlfriend’s drug use, the change in the jury charge did not affect the outcome of the trial.

Additionally, Ketchum argued that the circuit court neglected to conduct an additional hearing concerning the voluntariness of certain statements. Ketchum had made a spontaneous statement during transport with an officer; however, Ketchum never formally filed a motion to suppress the statement. The Court found that an additional hearing outside the presence of a jury would have been required if a motion had been filed, but in the absence of a motion, the hearing was not required. The Court went further, noting that spontaneous statements are not treated the same as an interrogation, with Miranda warnings only applying to the latter. Spontaneous statements, the Court clarified, are admissible when voluntary, as was the case here.

After ruling against Ketchum on both prongs of his appeal, the Court ultimately upheld Ketchum’s conviction.

Colton Trent Ketchum v. State of Alabama demonstrates several important legal concepts. First, the Court’s approach to Ketchum’s claim of error in the jury instructions demonstrates a critical principle on review. It is important to remember that, even when error may technically exist, the error must cause harm in some way to entitle someone to relief. Additionally, the court clarified the limits of Miranda claims, solidifying the idea that spontaneous statements are not included.

If you have a Federal Criminal case, a State Criminal case, a Municipal Case or a Family Law case, contact Joe Ingram or Ingram Law LLC at 205-335-2640. Get Relief Get Results.


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