What role can a Judge play when Jurors ask a question during deliberations? People v. Fleming
This is not uncommon at all in criminal trials: the Jurors begin deliberation and they get stuck and need clarification. Now, they can’t (well, are not supposed to..) just phone-a-friend or ask the Court Bailiff… But there are formal rules where they can write questions to the Judge, have the Judge talk with the attorneys, and get written responses back from the Judge.
This September 27, 2018 case People v. Fleming* is a solid recap on how those laws work. And it also discusses what type of response is inappropriate for a Judge to reply with.
The facts of Fleming:
It’s a second degree murder case based on whether Defendant aided in betting in a crime.
In deliberations, the Jurors popped this question (in writing to the Judge):
“Are the events that take place after the crime considered part of the committing? For example the alleged disposal of the weapon and securing the ride home? (In the case of aiding/abetting) When does the crime end? After the last shot or when safe harbor occurs?”
The Judge replied: “The jury is asking to define the word `committing’. Which particular instruction or instructions is the jury referring to when asking about the word `committing’?”
Jurors: “[CALCRIM No.] 401—in particular, part 3.”
The Judge conferred with the lawyers and “treated the jury’s question as two separate queries: one seeking guidance as to whether the jury could consider evidence of defendant’s conduct after the shooting in determining guilt based on aiding and abetting, and the other about the point at which the crime ends.”
In conferring, “defense counsel unsuccessfully argued that the thrust of the jury’s question required guidance on the distinction between the different mental states involved in aiding and abetting versus accessory-after-the-fact.”
The Court then “provided a written response to the jury’s question, which omitted any guidance about when the commission of the crime came to an end: ‘Factors relevant to the determination of whether defendant is guilty of aiding and abetting include but are not limited to presence at the scene of the crime, companionship, and conduct before and after the offense.'”
First, the general law re this:
These are all direct quotes from Fleming, but I took out all the cites to make it easier to read:
The court has a primary duty to help the jury understand the legal principles it is asked to apply. During jury deliberations when the jury desires to be informed on any point of law arising in the case the information required must be given.
However, where the original instructions are themselves full and complete, the court has discretion under section California Penal Code 1138 to determine what additional explanations are sufficient to satisfy the jury’s request for information.
Although the trial court need not always elaborate on the standard instructions, the trial court nevertheless has a mandatory duty to clear up any instructional confusion expressed by the jury.
Ok, so why was this wrong here?
“Instead, based on the jury’s reference to paragraph no. 3 of CALCRIM No. 401, the court responded to a different question that the jury had not asked: what factors may the jury consider in determining whether the defendant is guilty of aiding and abetting? While the court’s response to that question was technically a correct statement of the law, as a response to the jury’s specific request for clarification as to what acts can be considered to be part of the commission of the crime, the answer did not correctly instruct the jury on the point of law that was the subject of the query.”
“The jury’s question in this case leaves no room for doubt as to the source of the jury’s confusion: if appellant could be guilty of the murder only if he formed the intent to commit or aid and abet the crime before or during its commission, the jury needed to know how long the commission of the crime continued—until the last shot was fired, or when the perpetrator had reached a place of safety?”
However, “[n]one of the instructions given addressed this point.” “But by purporting to answer this question by telling the jury to consider appellant’s conduct after the offense, the court essentially told the jury that the commission of the crime was still ongoing when appellant and King reached Brandi’s apartment, and thus included appellant’s acts of disposing of the gun and securing a ride home.”
Also, the Court failed to actually clarify or answer the Jurors direct question: “By failing to answer directly the jury’s question about how long the commission of the crime continued, the court improperly burdened the jury with the responsibility for deciding a question of law that was the court’s duty to answer.”
This was prejudicial and the judgement was reversed.
*Court of Appeals of California, Second District, Division Two
He earned his JD from Thomas Jefferson School of Law and his BA in Music Education from Northern Illinois University.
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