Can a Judge interact with jury deliberations?
How much can a Judge interact with Jurors while they deliberate? If the Jurors have questions or cannot reach a verdict, can the Judge answer questions? If so, to what extent? This August 15, 2016 Cal Supreme Court decision People v. Nelson gives some guidance (and why I used the picture of Conte intercepting a pass).
The facts of Nelson:
While this can happen in any San Diego DUI or criminal trial, Nelson is a murder case where the Jurors appeared deadlocked and hung (they could not make a decision for either a verdict of guilty or not guilty).
Over Defendant’s objection, the Court gave the Jurors a questionnaire the DA prepared with the following questions:
- Do you believe that there is any reasonable likelihood that further deliberations will result in a unanimous verdict?
- Do you feel that there is any clarification of the jury instructions or your duties as jurors [that] would assist you in arriving at a unanimous verdict?
- Do you feel that the read back of the testimony of any witness or witnesses or portion thereof would assist you in arriving at a unanimous verdict?
- Have any of the jurors refused to deliberate? That includes a refusal to be involved in the discussion and reasoning process.
- Has any juror based their present position on cases, information, or influence from any outside sources? That is, anything other than the evidence received in this courtroom or the jury instructions which I have given you. If so, in what manner has this occurred?
- Has any juror expressed the view that the death penalty is inappropriate in this case and based that view on anything other than the evidence and the law presented in this case? If so, what?
- Has any juror expressed a view that life without parole is inappropriate in this case and based that view on anything other than the evidence and the law presented in this case? And if so, what?
- Is there anything you might suggest that could possibly be done to assist you in achieving a unanimous verdict? If so, what?
“The court decided to question each juror individually in camera to determine whether any of the comments in the questionnaires “have any foundation in fact to the point at least to where it would show good cause to excuse a juror.” Defense counsel objected to the proposed procedure.”
What’s the law say about this:
First, the general rule: Although the Court can inquire to check for juror misconduct, in general, “[t]he mental processes of deliberating jurors are protected, because `[j]urors may be particularly reluctant to express themselves freely in the jury room if their mental processes are subject to immediate judicial scrutiny. The very act of questioning deliberating jurors about the content of their deliberations could affect those deliberations. The danger is increased if the attorneys for the parties are permitted to question individual jurors in the midst of deliberations.” Original emphasis kept.
“[N]o one — including the judge presiding at a trial — has a `right to know’ how a jury, or any individual juror, has deliberated or how a decision was reached by a jury or juror.”
If the Jurors indicate they have reached an impasse, then “the trial judge may, in the presence of counsel, advise the jury of its duty to decide the case based on the evidence while keeping an open mind and talking about the evidence with each other.” So that’s super general…
Here’s a little more depth:
“The judge should ask if the jury has specific concerns which, if resolved, might assist the jury in reaching a verdict.” Rule 2.1036(b) states, “[i]f the trial judge determines that further action might assist the jury in reaching a verdict, the judge may: (1) Give additional instructions; (2) Clarify previous instructions; (3) Permit attorneys to make additional closing arguments; or (4) Employ any combination of these measures.”
So was what the Nelson Court did proper?
Ah, no. “In this case, the trial court went considerably beyond any permissible intervention and took action that undermined the sanctity of jury deliberations and invaded the jurors’ mental processes. Based solely on the reported impasse, the court subjected the jurors to a detailed questionnaire that asked them to report on the thoughts and conduct of their fellow jurors — specifically, whether the jurors were refusing to deliberate, whether they were basing their position on anything other than the evidence and jury instructions, and whether they were expressing views about the inappropriateness of the death penalty or life without parole based on anything other than evidence and law.”
Here, while “not every unwarranted intrusion into a jury’s deliberative process requires automatic reversal[,]” the Court here found it was not harmless.