EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What's The Definition Of Prejudice?: Supreme Court Of Mississippi Upholds Verdict Despite Jurors Consulting Dictionary

A defendant is charged with felony child abuse under Mississippi Code Section 97-5-39(2)(a), which states:

Any person who shall intentionally (I) burn any child, (ii) torture any child or, (iii) except in self-defense or in order to prevent bodily harm to a third party, whip, strike or otherwise abuse or mutilate any child in such a manner as to cause serious bodily harm shall be guilty of felony child abuse of a child and, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for life or such lesser term of imprisonment as the court may determine, but not less than ten (10) years....

The defendant is not charged with child neglect, and the jury does not receive any instructions on child neglect. During deliberations, the jury sends a note to the trial judge with the following question: "Is negligence the same thing as abuse?" The trial court responds by sending a handwritten note to the jury that it "must rely on the Court's instructions on the law already given to you. Please continue your deliberations." After receiving the trial court's response, the jury continues deliberating for approximately half an hour and then returns a guilty verdict. After the verdict, a juror allegedly approaches the defendant's boyfriend and tells him that he and another juror had been confused about the definition of "neglect," so they had looked up the definition and had determined that "abuse" and "neglect" meant the same thing.  Based upon this determination, they allegedly determined that the defendant was guilty of child abuse. Is the defendant entitled to a new trial? According to the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Mississippi in Rutland v. State, 2011 WL 907116 (Miss. 2011), the answer is "no." I disagree.

In Rutland, the facts were as stated above. The Supreme Court of Mississippi noted that the issue was governed by Mississippi Rule of Evidence 606(b), which provides 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 assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning the 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 for these purposes.

Because the dictionary constituted extraneous prejudicial information, the court concluded that there could be jury impeachment, but only on the issue of whether the jurors consulted the dictionary and not on the issue of what effect that consultation had on their deliberations. Instead, the court held that

When the trial court is presented with an allegation of juror misconduct, the court must determine what communication was made and what it contained....Once this determination is made, the trial court must decide whether it is reasonably possible that the improper communication altered the jury's verdict.

Applying this analysis, the Supreme Court of Mississippi agreed with the trial court

that standard dictionary definitions for the words “neglect” and “abuse” are not the type of improper extraneous information that have been found to invalidate jury verdicts in our case law. There is nothing inherently prejudicial in the definitions or as applied to this case. The dictionary definition of the two words is clearly something within the collective intelligence and common knowledge of any jury.

Really? There was nothing prejudicial in the definitions as applied in Rutland's case? Rutland was charged with an intentional child abuse and not child neglect. We know that the jury thought that abuse could mean the same thing as negligence. Assuming that the jury consulted the dictionary for definitions of abuse and neglect, it seems clear to me that it was reasonably possible that this consultation could have altered the jury's verdict, with the jury possibly finding Rutland guilty based upon behavior that it perceived as negligent rather than intentional.



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