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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Sleeping Dictionary: Does a Dictionary Constitute Extraneous Prejudicial Information Under Rule 606(b)?

A Utah trial court found Carla M. Redding, a Salt Lake County Sheriff's Deputy, guilty of negligent homicide, negligent collision, and speeding in connection with a car accident that resulted in the death of one of the passengers in the car Redding's patrol vehicle struck.  Redding thereafter appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals, which recently affirmed her conviction in State v. Redding, 2007 WL3104401 (Utah App. 2007).

On appeal, inter alia, Redding raised the argument that the jury improperly reached its verdict by relying on the dictionary definitions of certain terms instead of following the court's jury instructions.  The Utah Court of Appeals rejected her argument, noting that at trial jurors submitted a note to the judge asking for a dictionary, and both sides stipulated to the jurors' use of a dictionary.  Because Utah's invited error doctrine precludes a party which affirmatively represented to the trial court that it had no objection to an action from appealing on the ground that the action constituted an error, the court found that Redding's appeal was without merit.

I have no problem with the court's ruling, but it led me to wonder whether the Utah Court of Appeals would have reversed if jurors had consulted a dictionary without the defendant's knowledge or consent.  What I found was that courts are sharply divided in such cases.  Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) and most state counterparts (including Utah Rule of Evidence 606(b)) state that upon inquiry into the validity of a verdict, a juror can testify about jury deliberations when, inter alia, extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention.  The question is, however, whether a dictionary constitutes extraneous prejudicial information.

Some courts have held that jurors' use of a dictionary to define the elements of a crime or words in jury instruction does not constitute the use of extraneous prejudicial information because their use of the dictionary is for the purpose of defining a legal term rather and does not relate to "facts under deliberation." See, e.g., United States v. Cheyenne, 855 F.2d 566, 568 (8th Cir. 1988).  Other courts have held that jurors' use of a dictionary is not inherently prejudicial but have noted that in rare cases such use can require a new trial.  See, e.g., United States v. Henley, 28 F.3d 1111, 1115-16 (9th Cir. 2001).  Finally, some courts have found that it's quite possible that jurors' use of a dictionary can require a new trial, especially when jurors use the dictionary to define legal terms. See, e.g., Sharrief v. Gerlach, 798 So.2d 646, 652 (Ala. 2001).

I'm not sure whether I agree with the second or third line of cases, but I certainly disagree with the Eighth Circuit's decision in Cheyenne.  Assuming that a crime has a certain definition of a term such as "malice," and assuming that a dictionary has a different and conflicting definition of the term "malice," it is easy to see how jurors' reliance on the dictionary definition could be prejudicial to a defendant if, for instance, the jurors found he acted in accordance with the dictionary definition of "malice" but they would not have found that he acted in accordance with the legal defintion of malice. 

-CM   

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