Thursday, October 29, 2009
Absence Of Malice: Court Vacates Second Degree Murder Conviction Because Juror Read Dictionary Definitions Of "Malice" To Other Jurors
A man is charged with, among other things, second degree murder, which means that the prosecution needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the man acted with malice in order for the jury to convict him. Legally,
Malice is a necessary element which distinguishes second degree murder from manslaughter. Malice arises when an act which is inherently dangerous to human life is intentionally done so recklessly and wantonly as to manifest a mind utterly without regard for human life and social duty and deliberately bent on mischief.
Of course, the word malice is also used outside the legal context, with its usual definition being "desire to cause pain, injury, or distress to another" or "intent to commit an unlawful act or cause harm without legal justification or excuse."
So, what would happen in the above case if a juror decides to bring a dictionary into the jury room and reads the dictionary definition of malice, with the defendant eventually being convicted of second degree murder? The answer, according to the recent opinion of the United States District Court for the
Eastern Middle District of North Carolina in Bauberger v. Haynes, 2009 WL 3450967 (M.D.N.C. 2009), is that the jury can impeach its verdict, leading to the defendant being awarded a new trial.
On February 3, 2002, [William] Bauberger consumed in excess of ten beers over the course of approximately five hours at a Super Bowl party and then left via his car to visit a friend. En route, he drove the wrong way down an exit ramp of U.S. Highway 421 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and collided with a car driven by William Foy. Tragically, Foy's wife, a passenger, died within minutes of the crash.
In order to establish that Bauberger acted with malice as defined above,
the state presented evidence that Bauberger (1) admitted to driving with a blood alcohol level of .20 on the night of the crash; (2) had at least two prior convictions for Driving While Intoxicated, as well as other driving offenses such as reckless driving; (3) disregarded road signs and other warnings on the night of the crash; (4) disregarded prior court orders not to drive; (5) drove that night despite having had his license revoked; and (6) acted in a profane manner to emergency personnel and others at the scene of the crash.
The jury eventually found that Bauberger acted with the requisite malice and thus found him guilty of, inter alia, second degree murder, but not until after a juror checked out Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, brought it to the jury room, and read its definitions of "malice" to the other jurors.
After Bauberger was convicted, he learned of this fact and sought to have his verdict vacated via jury impeachment. The United States District Court for the
Eastern Middle District of North Carolina noted that the issue was governed by Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which states, inter alia, that
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 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.
The court found that the dictionary definitions were indeed an "extraneous influence" because they competed with the legal definition of malice and thus vacated Bauberger's conviction because it found that this influence was not harmless. According to the court,
When juries resort to self-help in assessing the law-even when well-intentioned, they jeopardize the deliberative process and a defendant's fundamental rights under the Constitution to an impartial jury. The purpose of these rights is to “protect[ ] individuals from unconstitutional convictions and help to guarantee the integrity of the criminal process by assuring that trials are fundamentally fair.”...As reprehensible as is Bauberger's conduct, he is entitled to the protections of the Sixth Amendment and thus a new trial as to the second-degree murder charge.