Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Do The Right Thing: Court Finds Detective Pressure Constitutes An Improper Outside Influence Under Rule 606(b)
The Court of Appeals of North Carolina's recent opinion in State v. Lewis, 2008 WL 131223 (N.C. App. 2008), contains an application of Rule 606(b) that I have never before seen. In Lewis, the defendant Paul Brantley Lewis, was convicted of first-degree sexual offense, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and felony breaking and entering. Among the jurors hearing his case was Deputy Eddie Hughes of the Avery County Sheriff's Department. Deputy Hughes actually knew Lewis through his work at Avery County Jail, where he twice transported him to Central Prison. While Hughes transported Lewis to Central Prison, Lewis disclosed to him that he had failed a polygraph test. However, despite Hughes admitting these facts during voir dire, Lewis' attorney did not use a peremptory challenge to remove Hughes.
After trial, defense counsel learned that during a break in Lewis' trial, Deputy Hughes went to the Sheriff's Department, where a detective said to him, "[I]f we have...a deputy sheriff for a juror, he would do the right thing. You know he flunked a polygraph test, right?" Hughes indicated that he failed to disclose this fact to the court because he already knew that the defendant failed his polygraph test. Nonetheless, defense counsel moved for a new trial on the ground that Lewis had been unfairly prejudiced by this inappropriate communication.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina indicated that the issue of whether Hughes could testify about this conversation to disturb the trial court's verdict was governed by North Carolina Rule of Evidence 606(b). Rule 606(b) states that "[u]pon 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 his or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing him to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning his 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 his affidavit or evidence of any statement by him concerning a matter about which he would be precluded from testifying be received for these purposes."
The court first noted that the communication between Hughes and the detective did not constitute extraneous prejudicial information because Hughes already knew about the failed polygraph test and communicated this knowledge to the court. The court did, however, find that the detective's statement about "do[ing] the right thing" constituted an improper outside influence because it clearly evinced an intent on the detective's part to try to influence Hughes into finding the defendant guilty. The court then determined that the statement was sufficiently prejudicial to entitle the defendant to a new trial.
While this is a unique application of the rule, I think that it is fundamentally similar to cases finding that threats by relatives of a defendant or victim to jurors constitute improper outside influences, allowing testimony concerning such threats to be admissible under Rule 606(b).