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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Supreme Court Of Florida Precludes Jury Impeachment In Death Penalty Appeal

The recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida in Simpson v. State, 2009 WL 330946 (Fla. 2009), addressed an interesting question with regard to the anti-jury impeachment rule that I have not seen raised before.

In Simpson, Jason Andrew Simpson was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and given two death sentences based upon the following facts adduced at the guilt phase of his trial:

Simpson went to the home of Archie Crook, Sr. and Kimberly Kimbler in Jacksonville, Florida, armed with an ax. Simpson entered the home, went into the master bedroom where Crook and Kimbler were sleeping, and proceeded to use the ax to hack Crook and Kimbler to death. Simpson inflicted several blows on Crook's face and neck, breaking his jawbone and severing his carotid artery. Simpson struck Kimbler, who was between seven and seven and a half months pregnant, in the back of her arm, shattering the bone. Simpson then inflicted numerous blows on Kimbler's head and neck, ultimately breaking her neck bone.

After the jury returned its guilty verdicts, but before any evidence was presented at the penalty phase of trial, juror Colleen Cody came forward and claimed that "there were some questions that were unanswered before the verdict was made." Defense counsel thereafter moved for a mistrial, and the judge denied the motion but allowed the parties to question Cody. In response to questioning,

Cody expressed that the guilty verdict was not her verdict because some of the other jurors told her to weigh the physical evidence more heavily than the other evidence. Nonetheless, juror Cody confirmed that based upon that weighing process, the jury as a whole reached a unanimous verdict that Simpson was in fact guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

After this questioning, defense counsel renewed his motion for a mistrial, which the trial court again denied. Then, after the jurors gave Simpson his death sentences, the parties again questioned Cody, but defense counsel was again unsuccessful in having the verdict disturbed.

Simpson's appeal eventually reached the Supreme Court of Florida, which found that its decision was governed by Florida Statutes Section 90.607(2)(b), which states that

Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror is not competent to testify as to any matter which essentially inheres in the verdict or indictment.

It noted that Simpson's argument on appeal was "that the crux of this issue [wa]s whether the commencement of the penalty phase constitutes discharge of the jurors in a death case for the purpose of evaluating whether they may recede from their guilt phase verdicts.". The Florida Supremes, however, noted that the question was not whether the jury had been "discharged" but whether they had delivered a verdict because if they had, Cody's testimony would have been presented as part of the inquiry into the validity of the verdict. And because the jury had rendered guilty verdicts, Cody was not competent to testify, and the trial court acted properly in not disturbing those verdicts.

I think that the court properly interpreted the anti-jury impeachment rule, but seeing jurors precluded from impeaching their verdicts when the defendant has been sentenced to die still strikes me as troubling.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2009/03/fl-606b-simpson.html

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