Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Supreme Court to decide when dishonest juror gets you a new trial

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that would interest any trial lawyer. The question is: when can you throw out a verdict upon proof that the juror lied about something during jury selection? The federal courts have split on this issue, prompting the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The case is Warger v. Shauers, decided by the Eighth Circuit in July 2013. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on March 3. Warger is a car accident case that was tried in federal court. The plaintiff lost the trial. After losing, he learned that the foreperson of the jury told the other jurors about her daughter's experience in a serious car accident. Another jury reported the foreperson's conduct to Warger's lawyers. According to the juror, "during deliberations the foreperson stated her daughter's life would have been ruined had her daughter been held liable for damages caused by the accident. The affidavit further alleged the foreperson expressed she was unwilling to return a verdict for Warger because the Shauers were a young couple and their lives would also be ruined should they be found liable. Further, it silted other jurors had been persuaded by her expressions of sympathy and thus decided to return a verdict for Shauers."

Doesn't sound like Warger got a fair trial, does it? During federal jury selection, the judge (and sometimes the lawyers) asks the potential jurors questions about their prior experience with the legal system, among other topics. Although the Eighth Circuit ruling does not make it clear, the jury was probably asked if they could be fair in a case like this in light of their prior experience. The foreperson must have answered "yes" to that question. Of course, the foreperson could not be fair, in light of the concerns raised by another juror about the foreperson's refusal to hold the defendant liable in this car accident case in light of a family member's personal experience. If the foreperson was lying during jury selection, does that negate the verdict?

The Eighth Circuit says this is no basis for a new trial. The Court says, "Although juror testimony can be used to show dishonesty during voir dire for the purpose of contempt proceedings against the juror, there is a split among the circuits as to whether such testimony may be used to challenge a verdict." The Court notes the general rule that a juror cannot impeach his own verdict through a post-trial affidavit, i.e., a sworn statement that says the jury misunderstood the evidence or the jury instruction, or that one juror pressured the other jurors to vote a certain way. This is to encourage open debate among jurors without allowing lawyers to gain another bite at the apple by interrogating jurors in the hopes that they might say something stupid or interesting in the hallway post-trial about the deliberations.

While some courts have made an exception to this rule in holding that juror dishonesty during jury selection can get you a new trial, the Eighth Circuit likes a statement made by [now Supreme Court Justice] Samuel Alito when he sat on the Third Circuit years ago: "[A]llowing juror testimony through the backdoor of a voir dire challenge risks swallowing the rule. A broad question during voir dire could then justify the admission of any number of jury statements that would now be re-characterized as challenges to voir dire rather than challenges to the verdict." The Eighth Circuit adds, "full and frank discussion in the jury room, jurors' willingness to return an unpopular verdict, and the community's trust in a system that relies on the decisions of laypeople would all be undermined by a barrage of postverdict scrutiny of juror conduct."

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