EvidenceProf Blog

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

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Nobody's Perfect: Judge Finds Newspaper Article Mentioning Inadmissible Evidence Is Insufficient To Award New Trial In Real Estate Killing

Like the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," the American justice system is ill-advised to demand perfection.  I would say, however, that a recent trial in California was closer to a perfect storm than perfection.

In that case, Michael Ray Jennison was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of James Magot, a real estate agent.  There was no dispute at trial that Jennison shot Magot twice in the head during an argument about the sale of a condominium  that Jennison had inherited from his grandmother.  Instead, Jennison's argument was that he should only be convicted of voluntary manslaughter because he had psychological issues that rendered him incapable of handling stressful real estate negotiations.

Pursuant to California Penal Code Section 192, "[m]anslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice," and one time of manslaughter is voluntary manslaughter, which is a killing based "upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion."  So, Jennison's theory of the case was that his quarrel with Magot caused him to snap and shoot him, which should have resulted in a voluntary manslaughter conviction, not a second-degree murder conviction.

Jurors disagreed with his theory, and a juror who came forward after trial provided at least a partial explanation.  According to that juror, "several hours before they convicted his client, jurors read an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune that said the defendant had guns, ammunition and cash in his car when he was arrested in Arizona."  This evidence, however, had been declared inadmissible at trial."

Jennison's attorney thus moved for a new trial.  Now if this case were heard under the Federal Rules of Evidence or most state counterparts, the juror's statements would have been admissible despite the general proscription on jury impeachment because the news story was extraneous prejudicial information.  California Evidence Code Section 1150, however, generally allows juror impeachment, so there was certainly nothing preventing jury impeachment.

The problem, though, was that Judge Allan Preckel denied the motion for a new trial, concluding that while he wished the newspaper article had never found its way into the hands of jurors, the law merely calls for trials with "fundamental fairness" instead of "perfection."

So, what do readers think?  It seems to me that the newspaper article could have been fatal to Jennison's argument that he was merely guilty of voluntary manslaughter and that, at a minimum, he likely suffered "substantial prejudice" as a result of the jury's exposure to the extraneous information."

-CM

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