Sunday, March 20, 2011
Talk About The Life In Massachusetts: Court Precludes Jury Impeachment On Jury Violence, Failure To Report Deadlock
On June 9, 2005, six days after the verdict, a juror sent a letter to the judge suggesting that she and possibly two other jurors had been pressured into convicting the defendant despite having a reasonable doubt concerning the defendant's guilt. According to the juror, other jurors “lean[ed] across the table into our faces and insist[ed] on yelling at us, screaming, swearing, and throwing books and pens just because we [saw] some things differently.” After the other two holdouts changed their minds, the juror claimed that she was subjected to “8 hours of constant interrogation,” with jurors “constantly yelling at me and swearing and pointing finger[s] in my face across the table and telling me that I am crazy.” The letter further alleged that some jurors had made up their minds “from day 1 without listening to anything that was presented,” that some jurors convinced or intimidated others to change their votes outside the jury room, and that the foreperson at one point refused to send the judge a note saying that the jury were deadlocked and instead insisted that they continue deliberating.
Is this grounds for jury impeachment? According to the recent opinion of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Commonwealth v. Pytou Heang, 2011 WL 489926 (Mass. 2011), the answer is "no." Instead, "'[t]ension between jurors favoring guilt and those favoring acquittal is part and parcel of the internal decision-making process of jury deliberations." I disagree.
In Pytou Heang, the defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree on theories of deliberate premeditation and felony-murder, armed home invasion, and unlawfully carrying a firearm. After receiving the letter mentioned in the introduction to this post,
The judge sent a copy of the letter to counsel...along with his own letter declaring that he did not believe any action should be taken because the juror's complaints in the letter did not allege an extraneous influence on the jury, did not "rise to the level of juror misconduct," and related to the jury's "internal decision making process." The defendant filed a motion to reconsider..., which was denied. The defendant subsequently filed a notice of appeal, preserving the issue for appeal.
In addressing that appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court relied upon Massachusetts common law, which is similar to Federal 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 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. A juror’s affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror may not be received on a matter about which the juror would be precluded from testifying.
Applying this law, the court concluded that
None of the allegations in the letter constituted an extraneous influence on the jury or a claim of racial or ethnic bias. Instead, the letter detailed stresses that sometimes surface in the deliberative process required to get twelve individuals with differing views of the evidence to reach a unanimous verdict. "Tension between jurors favoring guilt and those favoring acquittal is part and parcel of the internal decision-making process of jury deliberations."... That these stresses and tensions may be keenly felt by some jurors does not automatically call into question a verdict....Likewise, the juror's claim that two of the other holdout jurors were "intimidat[ed]" into changing their votes outside the jury room by other jurors is not an extraneous influence.... The judge did not abuse his discretion in failing to make a postverdict inquiry of the juror.
I disagree. A certain amount of tension and verbal sparring is certainly part and parcel of jury deliberations. Throwing pens and books at dissenting jurors is not. And neither is refusing to send the judge a note saying that the jury were deadlocked and instead insisting that the jury continue deliberating. Now, I'm not saying that either of these latter two actions should automatically allow for jury impeachment and a new trial. Indeed, the court's opinion seems to indicate that the jury did eventually report to the judge that they were deadlocked, with the judge telling them to continue with deliberations, which resulted in the final verdict. But it seems to me that this is something that should have bee explored in a postverdicyt inquiry rather than merely dismissed out of hand.
Did the dissenting jurors eventually join the majority solely because they felt that the violence against them would escalate if they did not. Was the jury deadlock reported only after the dissenting jurors softened their position, allowing the judge to tell the jury to keep deliberating. The defendant in Pytou Heang was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences on his two murder convictions, and obviously there were serious problems with the jury deliberations. Maybe those problems did not necessitate a new trial, but I think that they deserved at least a little investigation.