Improper Procedure for Discharge of Deliberating Juror Results in Reversal of Guilty Verdict

February 17, 2014
By Parker Scheer LLP on February 17, 2014 2:43 PM |

Last week, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an opinion in Commonwealth v. Garcia that reversed a jury's guilty verdict on the grounds that the judge did not follow appropriate procedures in discharging a juror during deliberations.

The defendant was charged with armed robbery, and the case was tried in superior court. About approximately three hours of deliberating, the jury sent a note to the judge, stating that they had not been able to come to a unanimous decision. The judge did not believe that the jury had deliberated long enough to show a deadlock, and instructed the jury to resume deliberations the following day.

About two hours into deliberations on the second day, the jury sent the judge a note which stated, "We have a juror who does not feel comfortable continuing deliberations [due] to emotional distress." The juror to whom the note referred was Juror 31. The judge met with Juror 31, and Juror 31 expressed that he was uncomfortable with continuing deliberations and requested that he be removed from the jury and replaced with an alternate juror. Juror 31 also stated that he told the other jurors about his discomfort, and they encouraged him to bring it to the attention of the court.

Defense counsel objected to removing Juror 31, noting that deliberations had already gone on for over a day with the current jurors. More importantly, Juror 31 was the only Hispanic juror in a case where both defendants were Hispanic. Notwithstanding defense counsel's objections, the judge discharged Juror 31 from the jury. Within about an hour after Juror 31 was discharged and replaced with an alternate juror, the jury reported that they had reached a verdict. The jury found the defendant and the co-defendant both guilty of armed robbery.

On appeal, the Appeals Court noted that statutes permit a juror to be dismissed "only [for] reasons personal to a juror, having nothing whatever to do with the issues of the case or with the juror's relationship with his fellow jurors." If a juror who has participated in deliberations is discharged, the judge must instruct the remaining jurors "not only to begin deliberations anew... but also that the reason for discharge is entirely personal and has nothing to do with the discharged juror's views on the case or his relationship with his fellow jurors."

The Appeals Court found that the superior court judge had not followed these procedures when he excused Juror 31. Not only did the judge fail to inform Juror 31 that only a personal problem - and not a problem regarding deliberations - could result in discharge, but the information the judge learned from Juror 31 about his "discomfort" was inadequate to justify discharging him during the course of deliberations. While deliberating with Juror 31, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, even after a full day of deliberations. But once Juror 31 was replaced, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict in approximately an hour, even though the judge had instructed them to begin deliberations anew. The Appeals Court stated, "On this record, we cannot discount the possibility that substantive disagreement about the case was at the root of Juror 31's emotional distress, and that both he and the other jurors (who, according to Juror 31, encouraged him to bring his request to the attention of the judge) were seeking a way for him to be excused."

Additionally, the judge failed to instruct the newly composed jury that Juror 31's dismissal was for reasons entirely personal to him, and unrelated to his views on the case or his relationship with the remaining jurors. The Appeals Court concluded, "Where the jury previously had informed the judge that they were unable to reach a verdict, it was particularly important that they be instructed that Juror 31's removal had nothing to do with his views on the case lest they speculate that he was removed because he was perceived to be an obstacle to their reaching a verdict. In the circumstances presented, the absence of a proper instruction created a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice."

Due to the judge's errors the discharge of Juror 31, the Appeals Court reversed the defendant's armed robbery conviction.