Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Lie To Me?: Supreme Court Of Maine Opinion Reveals That Jury Deliberations Can Be Used To Prove Juror Deceit During Voir Dire
The recent opinion of the United States District Court for the District of Maine in Watts v. Maine, 2009 WL 249236 (D. Me. 2009), reveals the important point that while jurors cannot testify regarding jury deliberations to impeach their verdicts after trial, they can testify regarding those same deliberations to prove that a juror lied during voir dire (which can have the effect of impeaching the verdict).
In Watts, Donald Watts filed a 28 U.S.C. Section 2254 petition, seeking to invalidate his convictions on charges of sexual misconduct. One of the grounds for Watts' appeal was that Juror 26 lied during voir dire in answering "No" to the following questions:
1. Have you or a close relative or friend ever been a victim of sexual abuse or sexual assault?
2. Have you or a close relative or friend ever been subjected to a charge of sexual abuse or sexual assault or been investigated for sexual abuse or sexual assault?
3. Have you and other family members ever been separated from one another due in whole or in part to sexual abuse or sexual assault or claims of sexual abuse or sexual assault?
4. Have you had any experiences in life that would make [it] difficult or impossible for you to consider evidence in a case of alleged sexual abuse or sexual assault objectively and impartially?
5. Is there any reason why you could not consider evidence in a case of alleged sexual abuse or sexual assault objectively or impartially?
The basis for the contention was the affidavit of Juror 19, who claimed that "during the end of deliberations and prior to the jury's final vote to convict Watts, Juror 26 'told the story of her own victimization, or sexual abuse.'" The court then questioned Juror 26, and she
"indicated that when she was seventeen years old, she was at a party drinking alcohol, and engaged in a consensual sexual experience with a teenage boy, who she thought was approximately eighteen years old. She accompanied the boy to a parked car, and they started kissing and touching each other. He eventually placed his hand down her pants, and this physical contact hurt her. This contact included digital vaginal penetration, which caused bleeding and required medical treatment afterward. When the touching hurt her, however, she told him to stop, and he did stop. She did not consider herself to be a victim of sexual abuse or sexual assault. She also testified that she did not consider her experience as a teenager to have affected her objectivity or impartiality in reaching a verdict in Watts's case. She told the court that she never even thought about this sexual experience until she was in the jury room. It was when the other jurors discussed similar life experiences involving drinking alcohol at parties when they were young that Juror 26 remembered this event, and then told the deliberating jurors about her experience."
Based upon this evidence, the trial court afforded Watts the relief he sought, but the Maine Law Court reversed. In so doing, the court first made clear the reason why it could consider the evidence at issue. The court acknowledged that under Maine Rule of Evidence 606(b),
"Upon 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 that juror's or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing the juror to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning any juror's mental processes in connection therewith, except that a juror may testify on the question whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror. Nor may a juror's affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror concerning a matter about which the juror would be precluded from testifying be received."
But, the court noted an important "exception" to this Rule is that "serious allegations of juror bias in the context of juror dishonesty or inaccuracy in answering a voir dire questionnaire is...[a] limited circumstance when the court, within its discretion, may proceed with a post-trial hearing to inquire into potential juror bias." But the problem for Watts was that, according to the court, Juror 26 did not lie during voir dire because:
"Juror 26 did not consider herself to have been the victim of sexual abuse or a sexual assault, and never characterized the limited sexual experience she related to her fellow jurors as sexual abuse or as a sexual assault, which was what the questionnaire was directed toward. Rather, the experience that Juror 26 related to her fellow jurors was consensual, albeit uncomfortable, and an experience that would not be uncommon among teenagers and young adults."
Thus, the Maine Law Court reversed the trial court, and the United States District Court for the District of Maine saw no reason to award Watts relief under 28 U.S.C. Section 2254.
I want to make one final point about Watts because the research on my nearly completed jury impeachment article uncovered a fascinating historical tidbit. In noting the justification for Rule 606(b), the court cited to the Supreme Court's 1915 opinion in McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264 (1915), as "contributing to 'the great weight of authority in this country' establishing strict limitations on allowing jurors to impeach their verdicts." This citation was unsurprising because Pless was the most important opinion cited in support of the passage of the stricter version of Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) and in support of its Constitutionality in Tanner v. United States, 483 U.S. 107 (1987).
And, indeed, Pless does explain in great detail why we need a strict anti-jury impeachment rule although, ironically, it also cautioned that "it would not be safe to lay down any inflexible rule because there might be instances in which such testimony of the juror could not be excluded without 'violating the plainest principles of justice.'" But that's not the greatest irony of Pless. And that irony is that Pless was a civil appeal, with the Supreme Court finding that the private redress that could be achieved through jury impeachment was not quite enough to justify the evils that would be unleashed if jury impeachment were allowed (at least in most cases). But, here is how the Court concluded its opinion:
"The suggestion that, if this be the true rule, then jurors could not be witnesses in criminal cases, or in contempt proceedings brought to punish the wrongdoers, is without foundation. For the principle is limited to those instances in which a private party seeks to use a juror as a witness to impeach the verdict."
In other words, the essential opinion underlying Rule 606(b) found that jurors should not be prevented from impeaching their verdicts in criminal cases. And yet, that is exactly what has happened in a great deal of cases, often with Pless cited as the most compelling authority.