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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Trial By Jury: Case Reveals South Carolina Allows Post-Trial Jury Impeachment Based Upon Juror Racial Prejudice

The Supreme Court of South Carolina's recent opinion in Shumpert v. State, 2008 WL 2019129 (S.C. 2008), reveals that South Carolina is among those states where evidence of racial prejudice during jury deliberations is admissible post-trial, despite Rule of Evidence 606(b)Shumpert itself is a fairly typical case by Rule 606(b) standards, with Tyrone Shumpert unsuccessfully attempting to appeal his convictions on armed robbery and conspiracy charges based upon a juror's affidavit.  That juror's affidavit indicated in relevant part:

     "I recall it being discussed in the jury room that if [Petitioner] wasn't guilty [ ] he would have taken the stand and informed us....There were a couple of people at least, maybe more, that made these statements. I firmly believe that these comments weighed importantly in the jury deciding to convict [Petitioner]. The tall skinny white lady who kept wanting to talk to [the trial court] seemed very concerned by this and I believe it played a big part in her decisions. She was very confused about it all. Also the preacher's wife, I can't recall her name, was very unsure about it.  I don't recall anybody in the jury room mentioning the judge telling us not to consider that....If I had it to do again, it would have been nine to three because I think I let those comments about him not testifying swing my vote. Deep down inside I think we made a wrong decision and for the wrong reason-basically for the comments that were made in that room about him not getting up to deny it. I also believe that we made those ladies change their vote because of that."

The Supreme Court of South Carolina found that this affidavit was inadmissible under South Carolina Rule of Evidence 606(b), which precludes jurors from impeaching their verdicts after trial unless deliberations were tainted by extraneous prejudicial information (e.g., inadmissible evidence reaching the jury room) or improper outside influence (e.g., threats by a party's friends/family).  Thus, jurors cannot impeach their verdicts based upon anything internal to the jury deliberation process, such as improperly drawing a negative inference based upon a criminal defendant choosing not to testify, which is why the juror's affidavit was inadmissible.

In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court of South Carolina contrasted its previous opinion in State v. Hunter, 463 S.E.2d 314 (S.C. 1995).  In Hunter, Roosevelt Hunter, an African-American man, was convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery.  He appealed these convictions based upon the proffered testimony of the only black juror, Margaret Richardson, who indicated, inter alia, that "a juror named Christine...used the word 'n*****' when referring to some testimony given at the trial. At trial, one witness quoted someone else as having said, 'We'll let the black boys work this weekend.' During deliberations, Christine misquoted this witness, saying, 'Let the n****** work.' After she said it, she caught herself, covered her mouth with her hand and said 'Oop[s].'"

In finding this testimony admissible, the Supreme Court of South Carolina cited the general proscription of South Carolina Rule of Evidence 606(b), but then found that "allegations of racial prejudice involve principles of fundamental fairness...If a juror claims prejudice played a role in determining the guilt or innocence of a defendant, investigation into the matter is necessary. To hold otherwise would violate 'the plainest principles of justice.'"  South Carolina courts are among those courts which have held that juror testimony about racial prejudice is admissible based upon the Fourteenth Amendment.  Conversely, some courts hold that juror testimony about racial or other prejudice is per se inadmissible.  I fall into the former camp and think that any societal interests in not exposing the deliberation process to public scrutiny is outweighed by the litigant's need for a fair trial.

(It should be noted that while the court in Hunter found the juror's testimony admissible, it still affirmed Hunter's convictions, in what I would call a "questionable" decision.  According to the court:

     "The use of the word 'n*****' by a juror was highly improper. However, she was not referring to Richardson or Hunter when she made the statement, and she was instantly aware of the inappropriateness of her words, as shown by the immediate covering of her mouth. There is no evidence other jurors agreed with her sentiments, nor is there evidence any other remarks were made.")

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2008/05/606b-sc-shumper.html

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