The Supreme Judicial Court today overturned a teen's gun convictions because the judge in the case failed to try to figure out what the jury foreperson meant when she approached him and said other jurors were throwing around "discriminating comments" during deliberations.
Because of the potential for a verdict being rendered by potentially biased jurors, this violated the teen's Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial, the state's highest court ruled in vacating his sentence of being delinquent.
Because of his age, the teen's name was replaced with a pseudonym and all the filings in the case were impounded, but the trial did happen in Suffolk County.
In its ruling, the court recited a litany of issues with the jury even before the trial ended: Two jurors fell asleep during testimony and one started a fight with other jurors over breast milk:
[O]ne juror, a breastfeeding mother, was provided accommodations to use a breast pump in a private locked court room during the lunch break, and another juror became aggressive and hostile that she could not use the court room to eat her lunch, upsetting other jurors.
The court said the trial judge handled these matters appropriately: He dismissed the juror angry over her lack of lunch privacy - and another for unspecified religious issues. And he made sure the sleeping jurors would stay awake - and that they hadn't missed anything during their brief shuteye. He brought the more visibly asleep juror up for a little sidebar chat to determine that she only dozed off for a second and didn't miss anything and to remind her of the importance of paying attention. And throughout the remainder of the trial, he had the court officer keep any eye on jurors to ensure they were, in fact, awake.
The judge's error, the court ruled, was in failing to get a handle on complaints from the jury foreperson about some possible bias issues during deliberations.
The morning after deliberations began, a Friday, the jury sent the judge a note that they were unable to reach a verdict. He called them into the courtroom to urge them to continue their deliberations.
As the judge instructed the jury to continue deliberating, the jury foreperson raised her hand to speak to the judge. At sidebar, with counsel present, the foreperson told the judge she had "concerns" that any decision would be "based on individual[s] who are using personal issues, personal matters into this case -- dominating the conversations and just not trying to put -- look at the case with an open mind"; she expressed doubt that the jury were going to reach a unanimous decision. The judge instructed the foreperson to continue deliberating, and he noted privately to counsel that a Tuey-Rodriquez instruction might be warranted. Shortly thereafter, the judge called the jury back into the court room to adjourn for the day, with instructions to return on Monday. The foreperson again requested to speak with the judge.
This time, she told the judge she was concerned because of all the "discriminating comments" flying around the jury room.
After dismissing the foreperson, he talked with the defense and prosecution attorneys about whether to dismiss her. The prosecutor professed a lack of understanding of just what the foreperson meant by "discriminating comments" - did she mean "discriminatory comments?" - to which the judge replied "I have no idea." And then he directed her to return for deliberations Monday morning - after concluding what she really wanted was to get out of jury service because of a work commitment.
Judges are required to be as hands off on deliberations as possible - deliberations are supposed to be secret and judges are supposed to let jurors grapple with the issues on their own. But there are limits and, the court ruled, the judge should have looked into the "discriminating comments," to ensure the jurors were maintaining their impartiality as to the facts of the case.
We recognize that, in this trial riddled with juror issues, the judge was careful and patient in dealing with these challenges. The judge once more was placed in a difficult position when the foreperson approached him during deliberations. Despite the judge's prefatory instruction against divulging information about deliberations, the foreperson disclosed issues personal to her, matters concerning deliberations, and a report of "discriminating comments" in the jury room. Although the judge, in keeping with his careful approach to the many juror issues, followed our guidance in Williams, 486 Mass. at 656, and interrupted the foreperson when she began to discuss deliberations, the issue of potential discrimination in the jury room had already been revealed. Confronted with this information, the judge needed to take steps to understand what the foreperson meant in order to determine whether further inquiry was required to assess whether the jury's impartiality had been affected.
The court continued:
In order to safeguard a defendant's right to an impartial jury, when a judge receives preverdict information that reasonably suggests that a statement reflecting racial, ethnic, or other improper bias was made during jury deliberations, the information "cannot be ignored." ...
Because, here, the judge indicated that he did not know what the foreperson meant by her report of "discriminating comments" in the jury room, and did not ask, he did not have the necessary information to determine meaningfully whether the foreperson's statement amounted to a credible report of statements by deliberating jurors reflecting racial, ethnic, or other improper bias. It constituted an abuse of the judge's discretion to not conduct a preliminary inquiry to determine what the foreperson meant in order to assess whether the jury remained capable of impartially rendering a verdict. ...
Based on this record, we cannot be certain whether comments reflecting racial, ethnic, or other improper bias were made and, if they were, whether they created a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.
Therefore, the court concluded, the juvenile's convictions had to be set aside.