Thursday, October 24, 2019

Texting Juror Invalidated Verdict

The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the reversal of a murder conviction for juror misconduct

In April 2015, a jury convicted Dr. Neulander of murdering his wife and tampering with physical evidence. Throughout the trial, one of the jurors, Juror 12, sent and received hundreds of text messages about the case. Certain text messages sent and received by Juror 12 were troublesome and inconsistent with the trial court’s repeated instructions not to discuss the case with any person and to report any attempts by anyone to discuss the case with a juror. Juror 12 also accessed local media websites that were covering the trial extensively. In order to hide her misconduct, Juror 12 lied under oath to the court, deceived the People and the court by providing a false affidavit and tendering doctored text message exchanges in support of that affidavit, selectively deleted other text messages she deemed "problematic," and deleted her now-irretrievable internet browsing history. The cumulative effect of Juror 12’s extreme deception and dishonesty compels us to conclude that her "improper conduct . . . may have affected a substantial right of defendant" (CPL 330.30[2]).

The court

The People contend that even if Juror 12 engaged in misconduct, "that misconduct is significantly outweighed by the substantial proof of guilt presented at trial." However, "[t]he right to a fair trial is self-standing and proof of guilt, however overwhelming, can never be permitted to negate this right" (People v Crimmins, 36 NY2d 230, 238 [1975]). The "public at large is entitled to the assurance that there shall be full observance and enforcement of the cardinal right of a defendant to a fair trial" (id.). Affirming a conviction where a juror engaged in dishonesty of this magnitude would not discharge our "overriding responsibility" to ensure the public’s confidence in the fairness of trials (id.).

Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed.

(Mike Frisch)

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