Friday, May 2, 2014
The New Jersey Appellate Division has reversed a conviction for conspiracy to commit first degree murder as a result of a physical altercation between jurors and the trial court's response.
Our decision to set aside defendant's conviction is predicated on two interconnected events. The first concerns a physical altercation between two deliberating jurors that occurred during jury deliberations. Physical violence between jurors during deliberations is toxic to the environment of rational discourse we associate with the deliberative process and fundamentally inconsistent with any notion of ordered liberty. A jury verdict contaminated by such violence is inherently unreliable. The trial court thus committed reversible error in denying defendant's motion for mistrial.
Independent of this error, the coercive measures employed by the trial judge in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the deliberative process were not only ineffective but, in our view, exacerbated the menacing environment caused by the violent episode between the two jurors. No reasonable juror can be expected to perform his or her duties as impartial judges of the evidence adduced at trial under the sweeping court-ordered civility code imposed by the trial court in this case.
We agree with defendant's arguments and reverse. On the second day of jury deliberations, the Sheriff's Officers charged with the jury's security and safety responded to loud banging on the jury room's door. Once inside, the Officers were forced to intervene and physically separate three jurors, one of whom reported being threatened, accosted, and assaulted by a fellow juror. This intervention by the Sheriff's Officers occurred immediately after or contemporaneous with the jury's report that it was "hopelessly deadlocked." Under these circumstances, no reasonable juror could have been expected to remain unaffected by the violence and chaos that permeated the deliberative process...
When violence intrudes into the deliberative process in any form and to any degree, a trial judge must take immediate action to investigate what occurred, not only to determine whether a defendant's right to a fair and impartial trial has been compromised, but also to ensure the safety and security of all involved. Our courthouses are the citadels of justice. A courtroom is a forum governed by reason and invulnerable to intimidation because of it. Jury duty is both a right and obligation of citizenship. Jurors who report to our courthouses in response to this obligation and to exercise this right are entitled to feel safe and secure.