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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Twelve Worried Men?: Supreme Court of Wyoming Denies Defendant's Appeal Despite Jury Note

Emilio Teniente was convicted by a Wyoming court of first degree murder and conspiring to commit murder in connection with the death of Joseph Lopez.  Teniente eventually appealed to the Supreme Court of Wyoming on several grounds, including the ground that the trial court failed to inquire properly into a note it received from the jury.

The note said,

Dear Judge Grant:

     During our deliberation some concerns have arose about the safety and any retaliation of either family, towards any of us or our families.  Some of us have been approached by some of the family members.  Please advise us of our course of action.  Thank you.

Respectfully yours,

The Jury.

The note referred to a specific instance when a female juror was approached by Teniente's girlfriend in a public restroom.  Apparently, the girlfriend introduced herself and said that she just had Teniente's baby and that "things were really hard."  The female juror did not respond and immediately walked away.  After learning about the incident, the judge talked with the juror and allowed her to continue serving after she said that she felt comfortable continuing, although she said that the contact did make her "a bit nervous."

Wyoming Rule of Evidence 606(b) is similar to its federal counterpart in that it generally precludes jurors from testifying as to jury deliberations, but it does allow jurors to testify about, inter alia, whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror. 

Jurors testifying pursuant to Rule 606(b), however, cannot discuss the subjective effect of the outside influence on the juror's decision-making.  Instead, in determining whether to remove a juror or reverse a conviction, the court, by looking at the entire record, considers objectively whether the defendant was or would be unduly prejudiced as a result of the outside influence.  Here, the Supreme Court of Wyoming found that the trial court acted properly in allowing the female juror to continue to serve and thus affirmed Teniente's conviction.

Unless the Supreme Court's decision leaves out some essential facts, I am utterly dissatisfied with the trial court's actions.  According to the jurors' note, "[s]ome of us have been approached by some of the family members," leading to concerns "about the safety and any retaliation of either family, towards any of us or our families."

From this note, it seems to me that (1) more than one juror was approached (2) by more than one person, and that (3) at least one of the approachers was a family member of the victim, Joseph Lopez.  Furthermore, when comparing the note's language about "safety" and "retaliation" with the words spoken by Teniente's girfriend -- which only made the female juror "a bit nervous" -- it sems to me that there were more threatening comments made to other jurors which were not mentioned specifically in the note.

Now, maybe when the female juror spoke with the judge, she made clear that she was the only one approached and that she was only approached by the girlfriend the one time described in the note, but the Supreme Court of Wyoming mentions no such explanation by the female juror.  In the absence of such an explanation, it appears to me that the judge should have conducted a much more rigorous search into the allegations raised by the note.

-CM

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