The American criminal justice system is based upon the ability of a defendant to present his case before an unbiased jury of his peers. But jury misconduct may occur if a juror fails to follow the law or a judge’s instructions. While these acts could negatively affect a defendant’s right to a fair trial, the remedies to the specific type of misconduct will vary based on the specific circumstances, with some situations resulting in nothing more than an admonishment from the judge while others may result in the defendant receiving an entirely new trial.
What Are Some Examples of Juror Misconduct?
Jury misconduct can result from a number of different issues. In most cases, the problem occurs when a juror behaves in a way contradictory to the court’s rules set forth to the jury. Though many people assume juror misconduct usually involves malicious wrongdoing, one of the most common reasons this happens is because the a member of the jury believes she should take it upon herself to learn more about the case, whether by reading the news or even just trying to find out more about the relevant laws online -even though jurors are only supposed to know facts about the case that have been presented in court.
Other common examples include:
- talking about the case with people outside of the jury or people on the jury outside of official deliberations
- refusing to take part in the deliberations
- intentionally concealing personal beliefs that could result in a bias against a juror, for example, holding deeply racist beliefs when the defendant is black
- not providing truthful answers while being questioned during the jury selection processes
- failing to report being bribed or threatened by someone outside of the case to make a decision either way, which is something a member of a jury is required to do by law
What Happens When Jury Misconduct is Discovered?
If misconduct occurs during the course of the trial, then the defense attorney may request an inquiry into the claim of misconduct. That being said, if no misconduct actually occurred, it is possible this could bias the jury against the defendant.
Sadly, misconduct isn’t usually found out until years after a guilty verdict and, in these cases, the defendant will need to file an appeal. When this happens, a judge will order evidence to be taken with witnesses in court and if misconduct is serious enough, the conviction will be overturned and a new trial ordered.
Misconduct Doesn’t Always Warrant a New Trial
It is ultimately up to the judge to review any evidence of juror misconduct. If it is discovered, he has a number of different legal remedies available to him depending on the severity of the problem. When it happens during a trial, the judge could take actions such as cautioning the jury against similar activities, discharging a specific juror and replacing her with an alternate, discharging the entire jury, or declaring a mistrial. For cases where the trial has already commenced, a mistrial is the only available option. In cases where a mistrial has been declared, the judge will also decide whether the charges should be dropped or if the case should be tried again.
A mistrial will only be ordered if a judge believes the conduct has resulted in one or more jurors to suffer from an incurable prejudice. As an example, many jurors have looked at dictionaries to better understand legal terms used in court although they are supposed to look at no outside material on the matter. Although the juror may not have properly followed the judge’s rules, in these cases there is generally no evidence to indicate that the dictionary caused her to become biased in her decision based on the information presented in the case.
In a recent real life example, the California Supreme Court ordered the trial court to hold hearings on whether Scott Peterson’s 15 year old murder conviction of his wife should be reversed. Peterson’s lawyers claims a juror failed to disclose being a victim of domestic violence and getting a restraining order against the perpetrator. The lawyers say they never would have seated this juror had she told the truth about her past. Hearings on the matter will begin in January 2021.
If you have been charged with a crime, it is critical you work with a skilled lawyer from the start in order to help protect your rights and minimize the chance you will be victimized by juror misconduct. Please contact Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free consultation in his Vista or Carmel Valley office to discuss your legal case.