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March 1999


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Lawyer at Large headline
Can a Juror Change Her Mind?

by Dana Saroop Seetahal


A few months ago in Duluth, Minnesota, a jury returned a verdict of guilty in a murder case in which the accused, Kenneth Roering Jr., was charged with having participated in the 1996 killing of a policeman. It is a case that has stirred great public indignation and the verdict was one that many had hoped for. Yet a few minutes after the verdict was delivered in open court, as the jurors waited in another room to be discharged, one juror recanted. "Juror T" sent a note with the bailiff to the trial judge with the words "I lied."

An Uproar

Her action resulted in an uproar in the courts, as no one knew how to proceed. The defense counsel called for a new trial and the judge had to schedule a separate hearing to decide what course to adopt. In speaking to the media the following day, Juror T claimed to have not "really believed" the guilty verdict, a verdict in which she participated.

Her change of mind seems to have resulted from the fact that the accused himself did not fire the fatal shot -- it was his admitted accomplice who did so. Juror T said that she felt pressured by the other jurors to agree, although no one forced her. However, she added, when she heard the verdict actually delivered she felt something was "terribly wrong." The other jurors, some of whom were interviewed, seemed dumbfounded at her change of heart. The situation is said to be unprecedented in Minnesota, hence the confusion.

Is it really? What are the consequences of this type of conduct? Should the statements of the juror be taken into account at all? Can juror statements about a verdict after its delivery possibly have any effect?

Two Perspectives

The common law (case-made law) in the United States flatly prohibits the "admission of jury testimony to impeach a jury verdict."1 On the face of it, therefore, one would think that Juror T’s statements would be inadmissible in court.

However, the rule does not preclude the admission of jury testimony about "external matters" or "extraneous" influences on their deliberations. It is in determining the extent of this exception that problems arise. Obviously if someone were to offer a bribe to a juror, then this would constitute an outside influence and the court should hear evidence about such allegations. In this regard American courts have more leeway that do English courts or courts in countries with a British-based legal system, where it is doubtful that inquiries into such matters can even be entertained.

Several years ago, at least two jurors in Trinidad & Tobago, on the day after their verdict (of murder), claimed that they had made a mistake because they had not understood the meaning of "unanimous." On appeal the evidence was not even admitted. The British based Privy Council, which is the highest court in Trinidad & Tobago, had no hesitation in dismissing the appeal maintaining,

The Court does not admit evidence … as to what took place in the jury room either by way of explanation of the grounds upon which the verdict was given or what (the juror) believed its effect to be.2

The Court confirmed that what took place in the jury room is secret and the decision given in open court is final. No evidence would be allowed as to any mistaken impression that a juror had or of what informed his decision. This is in keeping with the principles of English law on this point, which remain the law today.

Throughout the United States, the courts have the power, unlike their English counterparts, to inquire into extraneous matters. This concept is encapsulated in Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which of course applies to the federal courts. In Minnesota, the rules of evidence are almost identical to the federal rules and they prohibit any juror from testifying as to matters in deliberations that affected her mind, influencing her dissent or assent. She may, however, testify on whether "extraneous prejudicial information was brought" to her attention or " any outside influence was improperly brought to bear " upon her. This, of course, is a compromise between the view that jury verdicts should be immunized from review and the feeling that there needs to be a check on external influences on jurors. Into which category do Juror T’s statements fall?

Seetahal

Dana S. Seetahal is a professor of law at the Hugh Wooding Law School in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad & Tobago. As the beneficiary of a Fulbright Fellowship, she is currently a scholar in residence at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

"Juror T" sent a note with the bailiff to the trial judge with the words "I lied."


 

Impeaching A Verdict

As long ago as 1942 the Minnesota courts had to grapple with a similar problem when, after the delivery of the verdict, a juror claimed that she did not vote for conviction. This was held to be insufficient to impeach the verdict.3 The juror said that she thought the foreman would have stated in court that she did not agree. Perhaps if she had said that she disagreed right there and then in open court it would have made a difference.

In the instant matter the juror is not even claiming to have not agreed. She admits that she did agree but says she felt pressured by the other jurors -- not any outside influences, mind you. The general law appears to be that a juror is not allowed to impeach a verdict that he took part in rendering, unless there are exceptional circumstances which show objective circumstances and overt acts that amount to coercion.4

Addressing the subject in other cases, Minnesota courts have held that:

  • Lack of sleep and illness does not go towards proving coercion.5
  • Affidavit evidence of a juror asserting generally that other jurors ill-treated him because he disagreed with them was insufficient to impeach a verdict. Only if some jurors coerced other members by overt acts would the court consider such testimony to impeach the verdict.6

It seems clear that there were no overt acts of coercion against Juror T. She appears to have felt coerced because of her own ambivalence and vacillation. It is thus apparent that there is really no evidence of coercion in the case under consideration.

And what of the assertion by Juror T that she really did "not believe the verdict."

This assertion appears to be irrelevant to the issue at hand. When T had a chance to say something about the verdict -- before delivery and in open court -- she failed to do so. Although T sent the note shortly after the verdict and before the jury was discharged, this does not make a difference. Perhaps if her complaint had been that the foreman misrepresented the verdict e.g., it was manslaughter and not murder) then perhaps the court could have considered the verdict void or incomplete.

This is not the charge, though. Simply put, T appears to have had second thoughts. In State v Bauer, 471 N.W. 2d 363 (Minn. App. 1991), the court dismissed a claim made on this basis. A juror wrote a letter to a defendant six weeks after the verdict expressing the feeling that the defendant was not guilty. The court found that there had been no extraneous influence or misconduct but the juror simply had second thoughts. It is apparent, therefore, that second thoughts are insufficient to impeach a jury’s verdict. This is as it should be. If we are to have confidence in our jury system there must be finality to a jury’s verdict (in the absence of misrepresentation or coercion as discussed above).

One may wish to consider State v Buchmann, 380 N.W. 2d 879 (Minn. App 1986), to be the case on point on the basis of similar facts. In that case a juror claimed that she had not believed that the defendant was guilty but went along with the other jurors. The court refused even to order a post-trial Schwartz hearing to determine jury misconduct, since there was no evidence to justify it. The law has always been that to obtain such a hearing the defendant must show that there was misconduct resulting in prejudice, or present a claim of outside influence or extraneous information.

 
 

Conclusion

There is no claim of misconduct or extraneous influence in the present case, where Juror T in effect challenged the verdict after its delivery, albeit soon afterwards. There was no outside influence; there is no evidence of overt pressure by other jurors -- T simply felt pressured and gave in. Surely this is what usually happens to someone confronted with a persuasive argument. If T was weak and allowed herself to be overridden by other jurors, that cannot constitute overt coercion on their part. After all, deliberations require some give and take. For a court to question, in the absence of overt coercion, why a juror changed her mind after discussion, would be to engage in what the rules specifically prohibit courts from doing -- considering internal matters affecting the juror’s mind.

Since the foreman arguably did not misrepresent the verdict when he delivered it in open court, the verdict cannot be impeached simply because one juror now has second thoughts.

Postscript

On January 14, 1999, the Star Tribune reported that Judge Elizabeth Hayden had declared a mistrial in the Roering case and had ordered a new trial for the defendant. The mistrial was declared largely as a result of Juror T’s expressed doubt.

Ironically, the judge gave as part of her reasons the fact that the juror was exposed to no outside influence. Consequently, the judge concluded, "She did not change her mind. She indicated that the verdict returned was never unanimous."

Despite a request by the prosecution, the Supreme Court recently refused to review the mistrial ruling, thus paving the way for an early retrial of the defendant. As a result we are deprived of the benefit of ventilation of this issue by the State’s highest court. It would have been instructive, to say the least, to see how that court dealt with the Buchmann precedent.

Notes

1. Tanner v. United States, 483 U.S. 107, 107 S. Ct. 2739, 97 L. Ed.2d 90 (1987). (Back to text)

2. Lalchan Nanan v. The State (1986) 35 WIR 358 at 366. (Back)

3. State v. Bresky 213 Minn.323, 6 N.W. 2d 464 (1942). (Back)

4. Jensen v. Dikel 244 Minn. 71, 69 N.W. 71 (1955). (Back)

5. State v. Hook 176 Minn. 604, 224 N.W. 144 (1929); see generally 50 M.S.A., Evid. R. 606 ("Competency of Juror as Witness"). (Back)

6. Rush v. St. Paul City Railway Co. 70 Minn. 5, 72 N.W. 733 (1897). (Back)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"the verdict cannot be impeached simply because one juror now has second thoughts."