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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Will Free Love Lead To Freedom?: Convicted Man Claims Juror Sex During Deliberations Tainted His Verdict

Readers of this blog know that one of my favorite subjects for posts is Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) and the issue of whether and when jurors can impeach their verdicts after trial through evidence of jury misconduct.  And I thought that I had seen it all until I read about a St. Louis man who has sought a new trial based upon claims that both jurors and sheriff's deputies were engaging in sexual relations during deliberations.

Back in 2000, Roberto Dunn stood trial, facing charges of murder in the first degree, and finally being convicted of murder in the second degree.  But before that verdict, and during the trial, "a sheriff's deputy told the judge that she overheard some jurors discussing the case before deliberations started, which is improper."  The judge thereafter questioned four jurors, who admitted they had talked about several witnesses during a break.  Nonetheless, the trial judge apparently thought that these improper discussions would not taint the verdict because "{t]he trial resumed with the same panel."

Without even getting to the allegations of juror sex, this in itself seems to me like a questionable decision, but it's one which I can't really address because of the equally questionable decision of the Missouri Court of Appeals.  You see, Dunn appealed his conviction, and the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed in State v. Dunn, 60 S.W.3d 676 (Mo.App.E.D. 2001), noting:

     "No jurisprudential purpose would be served by a written opinion. The parties have, however, been provided with a memorandum setting forth the reasons for this order."

This seems bizarre to me.  The issue of whether jurors can remain seated after improperly discussing witness testimony seems fairly important to me, and I thus see a clear jurisprudential purpose that could have been served by a written order.  And when you add the allegations of juror sex, I really don't understand the court's (lack of a written) decision.

So, what were those allegations?  Well, two weeks after the jury rendered its verdict, juror Jennifer Thompson sent a letter to the trial judge in which she

     "accused two jurors of having sex with each other during two evenings at a hotel where the panel stayed. She said jurors believed the two sheriff's deputies assigned to the case were having sex with each other while on duty at the hotel."
 
Like the allegations of juror misconduct during trial, these allegations were not enough for the appellate court to award Dunn a new trial.  And on this count, I agree.  Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which Missouri has basically adopted in its case law, states in relevant part that:

     "[u]pon an inuqiry 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 that or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing the juror to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning the juror's mental processes in connection therewith. But a juror may testify 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."

I don't see how sexual relations between jurors and/or sheriff's deputies could be construed as either extraneous prejudicial information or an improper outside influence, and even if they could, I'm not sure how Dunn could argue that they rendered his trial unfair.

Nonetheless, Lisa Stroup, an assistant public defender now on Dunn's case, has appealed, arguing that the performance of Dunn's trial counsel in connection with these allegations was deficient.  And the one thing that she and Rachel Smith, an assistant circuit attorney defending the conviction, can likely agree upon is Smith's claim that "[c]ase law is silent as to whether jurors having sex with each other, if it is proven to be true, is an issue."   

I agree as well, which makes the Missouri Court of Appeals' decision not to issue a written opinion even more bizarre.

-CM

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