EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Creating The Vermonster? Murder Case Reveals That Vermont Allows For Broader Post-Trial Jury Impeachment Than Do The Federal Rules Of Evidence

A Vermont court's refusal to allow a convicted defendant's attorney reveals an interesting wrinkle in Vermont Rule of Evidence 606(b).  Brian L. Rooney was convicted of murdering University of Vermont student Michelle Gardner-Quinn.  Specifically, the prosecution was able to prove that Rooney raped and killed the college senior after a chance meeting with her in which she asked to use his cell phone.  After Rooney was convicted, he moved to have his attorney question juror Randy Chadurjian, with the goal of having Chadurjian ultimately testify that Judge Michael Kupersmith's instructions to jurors in the case were deficient.  Judge Kupersmith denied the motion, finding that while Rooney could appeal based upon the allegedly deficient jury instruction, he could not prove that the jury instructions were deficient through the testimony of jurors.

This ruling ostensibly was premised upon Vermont Rule of Evidence 606(b), which states that "[u]pon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury's deliberations or to the effect of anything upon his or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing him to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning his mental processes in connection therewith, nor may his affidavit or evidence of any statement by him concerning a matter about which he would be precluded from testifying be received; but a juror may testify on the question whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention, whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror, or whether any juror discussed matters pertaining to the trial with persons other than his fellow jurors."

Vermont Rule of Evidence 606(b) is thus similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) in that it prevents jurors from impeaching their verdicts post-trial through testimony about anything "internal" in the jury deliberation process (such as ignoring/misconstruing jury instructions or failing to consider a particular issue/claim/defense) but allows testimony about extraneous prejudicial information (such as inadmissible evidence finding its way into the jury room) and/or improper outside influences (such as threats from the friends of a party).  The "wrinkle" added by Vermont Rule of Evidence 606(b) is the last clause, which also allows for post-trial juror impeachment when "any juror discussed matters pertaining to the trial with persons other than his fellow jurors."  There is no similar exception in Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b).  What is the purpose of this clause?

Well, according to the Reporter's Notes to the Rule, "[t]he provision of the rule allowing juror testimony as to statements to outsiders reflects the requirement of the juror's oath, 12 V.S.A. Section 5803, forbidding such statements. Violation of the oath may invalidate the verdict."  12 V.S.A. Section 5803 lists the oath that jurors must take: "You solemnly swear that you will well and truly try each and every issue which may be given you in charge during the present term of this court, agreeably to the evidence given you in court, and the laws of this state, and true verdicts give; your own counsel and that of your fellows you will duly observe and keep; you will say nothing to any person about the business and matters you may at any time have in charge, but to your fellow jurors, nor will you suffer any one to speak to you about the same but in court; and when you have agreed on a verdict, you will keep it secret until you deliver it in court. So help you God."

I see a clear problem with Vermont's reasoning.  Let's take the classic case where Rule 606(b) is generally thought to apply:  jurors ignoring jury instructions/issues.  So, for instance, let's say a defendant is on trial for first degree murder, which requires a jury finding of premeditation.  But let's say that the jurors ignore or misunderstand the jury instructions and fail to consider the issue of premeditation before finding the defendant guilty.  Typically, this would be considered "internal" to the jury deliberation process, rendering jurors unable to testify about the omission pursuant to Rule 606(b).  But, according to Vermont's jury oath, "You solemnly swear that you will well and truly try each and every issue which may be given you...."  Wouldn't the juror behavior in this case violate the jury oath, meaning that Vermont Rule of Evidence 606(b) should allow for post-trial juror impeachment?

It seems to me that it should, and yet the Rule clearly does not.  And yet the Rule does allow for post-trial juror impeachment in a case where a juror went home and discussed the details of the case with his wife, even if the wife did not influence his decision.  I admire Vermont's attempt to allow for juror impeachment in a broader range of cases, but it seems to me that the logic behind its unique exception justifies post-trial jury impeachment in a broader range of cases than the Rule actually allows.



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I'm curious about why you believe expansion of juror impeachment is, in general, a good idea. Some of the policy reasons militating against it include post-verdict jury tampering (something that can be difficult enough to control pre-verdict) and the sanctity of juror deliberations.

Posted by: Juror Impeachment | Jun 7, 2008 4:41:13 PM

As I've said before, I'm ambivalent about whether we should expand the cases in which juror impeachment is permissible (http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2008/05/iowa-606b-reed.html), although I do feel that it should be allowed in cases where there is evidence of racial or other prejudice. My ambivalence is founded in large part upon the jury tampering possibility you raise.

At the same time, I just hate the idea of innocent people being imprisoned because jurors misunderstood jury instuctions or engaged in other behavior which is covered by Rule 606(b). The reason I admire Vermont's gambit is that they are trying to ensure that more wrongs are righted than under the Federal Rules. Now, maybe their reasoning is a bit inconsistent, and maybe they risk harm to jurors and the jury system. But, at least they are trying to secure more justice, and I would hope that they are able to review at some point both the positive and negative effects of their unique exception and decide whether to keep, expand, or scrap it.

I expect to know a lot more about the lay of the land and have much more settled opinions on juror impeachment after researching and completing the article mentioned in the blog post I linked in this comment.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 8, 2008 6:34:51 AM

I read your prior posts, which were very interesting. Thank you.
I think I would go further than your statement above concerning factual innocence. Everyone deserves a trial comporting with due process. This is a core concept of ordered liberty, which extends beyond factual guilt or factual innocence and is the only way that all of us can be assured that our criminal justice system operates properly and fairly. Anyone who receives a trial that violates due process deserves a new trial even if some might think his guilt is all but assured. I guess I remember too clearly old-time news reports that would say someone's conviction was "thrown out on a technicality" apparently unaware that technicality was our constitution.
I agree that there is no place in jury deliberations for extraneous matter, which in my mind would include racial commentary. But that does not mean that every claim of that sort is automatically entitled to (evidentiary) hearing. Nor is it generally structural error requiring automatic reversal. A claim arising nine years after a verdict has some facial credibility problems. A claim arising close in time, less so. Still, even claims like these raise the possibility of post-verdict jury tampering. I seriously wonder if jurors expect to be contacted by defendants (or prosecutors) after rendering verdicts. I imagine some might react fearfully. Some might have good reason. In this time of "stop snitching" and the consequences that follow for those that stand up for what's right, we have to harbor grave concerns for our jurors. If the message gets out that this type of claim can cause a verdict to be vacated, we will put jurors at risk of intense post-verdict pressure.
As usual in the law there are no easy answers.

Posted by: jurors | Jun 8, 2008 9:11:45 PM

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