EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Eleventh Circuit Rejects Premature Deliberations Claim in Death Penalty Appeal

Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) states the following:

(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;

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

(C) a mistake was made in entering the verdict on the verdict form.

In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the Supreme Court also created a Constitutional exception to this "no jury impeachment" rule when there is evidence of racial bias by jurors during deliberations. But, as the recent opinion of the Eleventh Circuit in Gavin v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, 2022 WL 2752366 (11th Cir. 2022), of no exceptions apply, jurors cannot testify to impeach their verdict.

In Gavin, Keith Gavin filed a federal habeas petition, claiming, inter alia, that his jurors engaged in premature deliberations before the penalty phase of his murder/attempted murder trial in violation of his constitutional right to a fair trial. In rejecting Gavin's petition, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that Rule 606(b) 

provides that “a juror may testify on the question [of] whether extraneous prejudicial information was properly brought to the jury's attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror.”...Additionally, the Supreme Court has held that the no-impeachment rule must yield to juror testimony about racial animus in jury deliberations....However, outside of these narrow exceptions, the Supreme Court has rejected attempts to circumvent the no-impeachment rule embodied in Federal Rule 606(b)...The Supreme Court emphasized the importance of Rule 606(b) to ensuring “frankness and freedom of discussion” by jurors during deliberation, which would be destroyed if attorneys could later use juror testimony to attack the verdict....The Court also expressed concern that permitting the use of juror testimony to impeach a verdict would undermine the interest in the finality of judgments, the “jurors’ willingness to return an unpopular verdict,” and trust in the judicial system....

The evidence that Gavin seeks to submit in support of his claim does not fall within the ambit of any exceptions to Rule 606(b)—it is not evidence of an external influence on or extraneous prejudicial information that was brought to bear on the jury's decision, or evidence of racial animus. Rather, Gavin seeks to submit a juror's statement about an irregularity in the jury's deliberative process—the exact type of evidence that Alabama's Rule 606(b) excludes. And despite Gavin's argument that, in the context of premature penalty-phase jury deliberations, the no-impeachment rule “must yield” to his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to a fair and impartial jury trial, he has identified no clearly established federal law from the Supreme Court in support of that principle. Thus, the CCA's rejection of this claim was not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, any federal law



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