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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Making Weight: Court Of Appeals Of Indiana Doesn't Allow Jury Impeachment Regarding Jury Experiments On Weight Bench

A husband arrives home and allegedly finds his wife dead, her lifeless body lying on a weightlifting bench with the weight bar pinned across her throat. The State disagreed, believing that the wife's death was a case of foul play. It charges the husband with murder. The case proceeds to trial, where the prosecution introduces the weight machine into evidence as an exhibit. During deliberations, the jurors use the weight machine to perform experiments. Are the results of these experiments extraneous prejudicial information, allowing for juror impeachment? According to the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Indiana in Pattison v. State, 2011 WL 6130778 (Ind.App. 2011), the answer is "no." I disagree.

In Pattison, the facts were as stated above. At trial,

the State assembled the machine in the courtroom. The machine was entered into evidence as State's Exhibit 17 without objection. During the testimony of Laurel Jensen, who worked for the company that manufactured the machine, the jury was permitted to leave the jury box and gather around the machine. Jensen explained how it worked and pointed out its parts and features. Later, Detective Jason Page testified about experiments he had performed on the machine during his investigation. During his testimony, Page lay down on the machine and demonstrated for the jury how it functioned. Among other features, he demonstrated how a user could lock the weight bar into place on the guide bars to prevent it from falling on the user. Next, during the cross-examination of Dr. Greg Davis, the prosecutor had a detective lie on the bench, and he straddled the detective while questioning Dr. Davis. The prosecutor, while grabbing the detective's wrists, asked Dr. Davis if a person could keep another person who was using the machine from locking the weight bar into place under those circumstances. The prosecutor also asked Dr. Davis to estimate how quickly a person's breathing would be impeded if the weight bar were laying on his or her neck and another person sat on his or her abdomen.

After the defendant was convicted, he filed a motion for a mistral and asked the court to hold a hearing and require jurors to appear for questioning about their experiments with the machine. The defense learned about these experiments through a newspaper newspaper article in which one of the jurors gave an interview. According to the interview, 

the jurors returned to the courtroom during their deliberations to experiment with the machine. A female juror lay on the weight bench and tried to get out from under the weight bar. Next, the same juror tried to get out from under the weights while another juror sat on her and held her wrists.

The defendant thereafter appealed, claiming that evidence of these experiments was admissible under Indiana 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, except that a juror may testify (1) to drug or alcohol use by any juror, (2) on the question of whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention or (3) whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror. A juror’s affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror concerning a matter about which the juror would be precluded from testifying may not be received for these purposes.

According to the defendant, the results of the jurors' experiments were extraneous prejudicial information. The Court of Appeals of Indiana disagreed, first noting that

An experiment by the jury is improper where it amounts to additional evidence supplementary to that introduced during the trial....In Bradford, the defendant was charged with arson and murder. During the presentation of the evidence, a detective testified as to experiments he had conducted to establish whether the defendant could have committed the offenses in the time allowed. Next, the jury was taken to the crime scene and permitted to view it. Later, during deliberations, the jury requested and received permission to return to the crime scene, where they performed experiments as to how fast a person could pour gasoline out of a can and crawl through the house. Our Supreme Court determined that the jury's actions were in keeping with the evidence presented and were not improper

The court then found that

that the jury's examination of the machine during deliberation was not extraneous, additional evidence, but rather was a permissible consideration of the evidence presented at trial. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying Pattison's request for an evidentiary hearing to question jurors. See Hape, 903 N.E.2d at 988 (determining that the trial court properly denied the defendant's request to question jurors about text messages the jurors found on a cell phone during deliberations because the cell phone was properly admitted into evidence, and as a result the messages were not extraneous information).

I've already voiced my displeasure with the Hape case in a prior post. In this post, I ask "what was the court thinking?" with its reference to Bradford. In Bradford, the jury returned to the crime scene to perform experiments after receiving permission from the court. In other words, the experiments were court-sponsored, and the judge could explain to jurors how the conditions at the crime scene could be very different from the conditions on the day when the crime was committed. Conversely, if the jurors returned to the crime scene without the court's permission to conduct experiments, the results of those experiments indisputably would have constituted extraneous prejudicial information.

Why should the outcome be different in Pattison? Undoubtedly, the juror who lay on the weight bench had different physical characteristics than the victim. And undoubtedly, the juror who held her wrists had different physical characteristics than the defendant. The weight bench could have been in a drastically different condition than on the day when the victim. Sure, the weight bench was admitted into evidence, but the court did not authorize the jurors' experiments, meaning that the results of those experiments were extraneous information that easily could have been prejudicial to the defense.

-CM 

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