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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Crime Scene Investigation: PA Court Affirms Robbery Convictions Despite Unauthorized Juror Crime Scene Visit

Similar to its federal counterpart, Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 606(b) provides that

Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict, including a sentencing verdict pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. §  9711 (relating to capital sentencing proceedings), 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 in reaching a decision upon the verdict or concerning the juror’s mental processes in connection therewith, and a juror’s affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror about any of these subjects may not be received. However, a juror may testify concerning whether prejudicial facts not of record, and beyond common knowledge and experience, were improperly brought to the jury’s attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror.

Under Rule 606(b), it is clear that a juror's unauthorized visit to the crime scene uncovers prejudicial facts not of the record (or extraneous prejudicial information. But should such a visit lead to a new trial? According to the recent opinion of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Pope, 2011 WL 480533 (Pa.Super. 2011), the answer is "no," at least if the layout of the crime scene was not a central issue at trial.

In Pope, Henry Pope was convicted of three counts of attempted theft, three counts of robbery causing serious bodily injury, and three counts of robbery causing bodily injury. Pope thereafter filed a motion for a new trial based upon defense counsel's post-verdict conversation with a juror, wherein the juror indicated that she went to the scene of the crime at the end of the first day of deliberations. Specifically, Pope claimed that the layout of the scene was significant in his case because of the possibility of misidentification, and he hypothesized that the juror was going to the scene to clarify questions she had regarding the victims' ability to identify the perpetrator.

The court disagreed, finding that

the record reflects that the layout of the scene was not a central issue. As indicated by the trial court, testimony presented at trial indicates that the scene of the crime was nothing more than a typical Philadelphia street....Although Pope cross-examined the witnesses and presented argument in his closing about the possibility of misidentification, it was unrelated to the physical aspects of the scene of the crime.... Rather, his closing argument on the misidentification defense centered almost exclusively on police officers' failure to follow proper procedure and how dark it was at that time of the robbery....At the subsequent argument on his motion for a new trial, Pope presented no facts or evidence before the trial court that the unauthorized visit to the scene of the crime provided the juror with information she did not have before her at trial or that the visit was emotional or inflammatory.

Pope also claimed that the trial court erred by failing to call the juror to testify regarding her visit to the scene of the crime. The court again disagreed, finding that

the law is clear that a juror cannot testify regarding what transpired during deliberations or regarding his or her own subjective reasoning process....This is commonly known as the "no impeachment rule."...An exception to the "no impeachment rule" exists, allowing a juror to testify "only as to the existence of the outside influence, but not as to the effect this outside influence may have had on deliberations."...This exception provides no relief for Pope, since the outside influence at issue (i.e., one or more jurors visited the scene of the crime) is not in question.

But here's my question: What was the purpose of the visit? Even if I disagree with their logic, I can understand why courts would not want jurors to be able to testify that they were leaning toward a "not guilty" verdict before visiting the crime scene but then changed their minds after visiting the crime scene. But I don't see anything in Rule 606(b) that prevents jurors from testifying about their reason for visiting the crime scene. Did the juror just want to see the layout of the crime scene? If so, I don't see why Pope would be entitled to reversal.

But let's say that the juror would have testified that (s)he visited the crime scene to see how dark it was at the time of the crime. Obviously, it gets darker earlier at certain times of the year than at other times of the year. So, let's say that the crime took place during a time of year when it gets darker earlier in the day than the time of year when the juror visited the crime scene. Even without the juror testifying about the effect that the visit had on the verdict, I think that the court could conclude that Pope was entitled to a new trial because part of his defense was that misidentification was possible based upon the darkness of the crime scene.

-CM 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2011/03/606b-com-v-pope-a3d-2011-wl-480533pasuper2011.html

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