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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is Justice (Color)Blind?: Court Of Appeals of Michigan Becomes Latest Court To Finds That Evidence Of Racial Prejudice Can't Support Jury Impeachment

The Court of Appeals of Michigan is the latest court to find that evidence of racial prejudice during deliberations is not a sufficient ground to permit post-trial jury impeachment.  It's a conclusion with which I strongly disagree, and I plan to write my article arguing for application of the doctrine from Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973) to this fact pattern this fall (research so far is going very well).  So, what was the exact fact pattern prompting the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Michigan in People v. Brooks, 2008 WL 2855040 (Mich.App. 2008)?   

Keith Brooks was convicted based upon the allegation that he sexually abused the victim, his niece, in 2004, when she was 15 years old.  Specifically, he was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct (digital penetration), but acquitted of a second count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct (penile penetration).

One of the bases for Brooks' appeal was an affidavit from the jury foreman -- Brooks Maudlin.  The affidavit claimed that some of the jurors had discussed the case during the trial.  It also asserted  that Juror # 1 had twice suggested that Maudlin's position that Brooks was not guilty was a "brotherhood thing" -- (both Brooks and Maudlin are African-American).  According to Maudlin, Juror # 1 said this once in front of Juror # 14, who "immediately introduced race into the discussion." Maudlin "felt that [Juror # 14] was attacking me personally based upon the fact that both Mr. Brooks and I are Black and I was arguing on his behalf."  Maudlin claimed that once he was the last juror voting "not guilty," several jurors personally attacked him and other jurors complained that they needed to get back to work." Maudlin stated that he changed his vote to "guilty" because he felt he "could not stay in that room much longer without exploding," and later realized that he had done so because of the pressure from other jurors, not because he believed that Brooks was guilty.

Now, the interesting thing is that Michigan actually doesn't have a rule of evidence covering the admissibility of the affidavit.  Michigan Rule of Evidence 606 merely covers juror testimony during trial, stating that "[a] member of the jury may not testify as a witness before that jury in the trial of the case in which the juror is sitting.  No objection need be made in order to preserve the point."  In other words Michigan Rule of Evidence 606 is very similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 606(a), which also proscribes juror testimony during trial.  Michigan, however, does not have a rule of evidence dealing with juror testimony after trial.  Conversely, Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) precludes jurors from impeaching verdicts except through testimony about "(1) whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention, (2) whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror, or (3) whether there was a mistake in entering the verdict onto the verdict form."

However, while Michigan doesn't have a rules-based counterpart to Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), it has incorporated a similar "rule" in its case law, with the Court of Appeals of Michigan finding in People v. Fletcher, 679 N.W.2d 127 (Mich.App. 2004) that "[o]nly where there is evidence that the jury's verdict was affected by influences external to the trial proceedings may a court considered juror testimony to impeach a verdict."  So, what did this mean in Brooks?  Well, according to the court, it meant that "[a]lthough it was improper for the jurors to discuss the case before the trial court instructed it to so and to allow their need to return to work to motivate their deliberations, these are the sorts of 'internal influences' [deemed inadmissible] by the case law." 

And how about the evidence of racial prejudice?  According to the court, no evidence could be received on this point, either.  According to the court, "The allegation that race entered into the jury's discussions, and the attendant implication that racial bias motivated the verdict, while much more disturbing, is still not an 'extraneous influence.'"  And that's the same finding that most courts currently reach when a defendant seeks to have a juror testify or present evidence that a verdict was tainted by racial/religious/gender prejudice.  These courts slavishly adhere to their rules and precedent in holding that juror impeachment should not be allowed in lieu of crafting an approach that would avoid what they acknowledge to be "disturbing" results. 

So, why do I think their conclusions are wrong?  Well, in Chambers v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court held that "exclusion of reliable evidence under state evidentiary rules may, under certain circumstances, deprive a criminal defendant of the fourteenth amendment right to present evidence critical to his defense." Mark Andrew Stafford, A. State v. Barts, North Carolina Relaxes Foundation Requirements for Mitigating Evidence in Capital Sentencing Hearings, 66 N.C. L. Rev. 1221, 1224 (1988). 

And the thing is that in most of these cases, there is nothing specific about the evidence excluded that brings the Fourteenth Amendment to mind.  For instance, in Chambers v. Mississippi, the Court found that Mississippi erred in applying its "voucher rule" to prevent defense counsel from impeaching a witness he had called.  Now, because the impeachment evidence consisted of statements indicating that the witness and not the defendant committed the subject murder, it is easy to see why the Court ruled in favor of the defendant.  But there was nothing about Mississippi's application of its voucher rule that screamed for application of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Conversely, a case like Brooks falls right in the Fourteenth Amendment's wheelhouse.  A criminal defendant claims that he was convicted based not upon the evidence, but based upon racial bias.  Such an allegation clearly implicates the due process clause and the Sixth Amendment requirement of a trial by an impartial jury, making it, in my mind, the perfect candidate for the Chambers v. Mississippi treatment.

-CM   

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