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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Revelations: Should A Jury Verdict Based On A Divine Revelation Be Impeachable?

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

(1)   Prohibited Testimony or Other Evidence. During an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify about any statement made or incident that occurred during the jury’s deliberations; the effect of anything on that juror’s or another juror’s vote; or any juror’s mental processes concerning the verdict or indictment. The court may not receive a juror’s affidavit or evidence of a juror’s statement on these matters.

(2)   Exceptions. A juror may testify about whether:

(A)   extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention; or

(B)   an outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror.

So, let's say that a juror claims to have received a revelation that if defense counsel did not make eye contact with her when he presented his argument, the defendant was guilty. If the defendant seeks to present evidence of this revelation to impeach his guilty verdict, should the court deem the evidence admissible? Let's take a look at the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Utah in Taylor v. State, 2012 WL 192798 (Utah 2012).

Taylor itself didn't deal with this issue. Instead, it dealt with the question of whether the defendant could present evidence that the jury foreperson suggested to another juror during deliberations that she put herself in the "shoes" of the victims. The answer to this question was a clear "no." In reaching this opinion, though, the Supreme Court of Utah relied upon its prior opinion in State v. DeMille, 756 P.2d 81 (1988). 

In DeMille, the facts were as stated in the introduction. In rejecting the defendant's argument that the juror's revelation was an improper outside influence, the Supreme Court of Utah held that

If we were to accept defendant's argument that supposed responses to prayer are within the meaning of the term "outside influence" in rule 606(b), we would implicitly be holding that it is improper for a juror to rely upon prayer, or supposed responses to prayer, during deliberations. Such a conclusion could well infringe upon the religious liberties of the jurors by imposing a religious test for service on a jury....A juror is fit to serve if he or she can impartially weigh the evidence and apply the law to the facts as he or she finds them....Prayer is almost certainly a part of the personal decision-making process of many people, a process that is employed when serving on a jury. There is no necessary inconsistency between proper performance as a juror and reliance on prayer or supposed responses to prayer. So long as a juror is capable of fairly weighing the evidence and applying the law to the facts, one may not challenge that juror's decision on grounds that he or she may have reached it by aid of prayer or supposed responses to prayer. Therefore, we hold that under rule 606(b), prayer and supposed responses to prayer are not included within the meaning of the words "outside influence." Testimony that a juror has so acted is not admissible to challenge a verdict; the trial judge properly refused to consider the proffered affidavit.

That said, Justice Stewart dissented on Constitutional grounds, finding that

A defendant is constitutionally entitled to a jury that determines guilt or innocence based on the evidence and the law presented to it. Verdicts decided on some other basis make the constitutionally guaranteed right to trial by jury a nullity. Indeed, a verdict that is rendered on the basis of supposed divine intervention is a throw-back to the primitive days of trial by ordeal where, for example, the manner of healing of a severe burn inflicted on a party was deemed to be an indication of God's judgment....

I believe the majority fails to draw a critical distinction between the legitimacy of jurors' seeking divine assistance in accurately and dispassionately weighing the evidence and the illegitimacy of jurors' abdicating their sworn duty to decide the case on the evidence and instead relying on some supposedly divine sign. Although "[a] juror is fit to serve if he or she can impartially weigh the evidence and apply the law to the facts as he or she finds them," as the majority observes, the fact appears to be that the juror in question did not impartially weigh the evidence and apply the law to the facts, but disregarded the evidence and the law and ruled on the basis of an "outside influence." Accordingly, the trial court could have relied on the affidavit under Rule 606(b) for the purpose of deciding that a hearing on the allegations should have been held. It is of particular significance that the juror in question is alleged to have been "one of the leaders" during the jury deliberations.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2012/01/606b-religion-taylor-v-state-p3d-2012-wl-192798utah2012.html

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