Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What happens in the jury room stays in the jury room

If you try cases, you know that the X factor is the jury. They sit in judgment of the plaintiff, the defendant, the lawyers and probably the judge. We trust the jury to make the right decision, yet we know nothing about these people other than what they reveal during jury selection, which in federal court is often very little. When I talk to clients about what happens at trial, I tell them that eight strangers will decide their case. It may not be a jury of your peers. Take a good look at the next eight people you see on your way home from my office. That is your jury. The guy who works at the gas station has not read a newspaper in years. The woman ahead of you at the traffic light has a Ph.D. The jaywalker only cares about his cellphone. The crossing guard has no time for jury selection and will fake an excuse to get out of it. You get the picture.

The case is Warger v. Shauers, decided by the Supreme Court on December 9. This case examines when a juror's lies during jury selection can get you a new trial. During jury selection, the judge will ask the potential jurors questions about their backgrounds and whether they can decide the case fairly. In this traffic accident case, one juror, Whipple, said she could be fair. After the plaintiff lost at trial, the plaintiff's lawyer heard from a juror who said that Whipple told the other jurors during deliberations "about a motor vehicle collision in which her daughter was at fault for the collision and a man died,” and had “related that if her daughter had been sued, it would have ruined her life.” Whipple was the jury forewoman. If this account was true, then Whipple was not being honest at jury selection. If she mentioned her daughter at jury selection, she probably would not have been picked for the jury.

Plaintiff's lawyer got the juror to sign an affidavit describing what Whipple said during deliberations, arguing that Whipple had lied about her impartiality during jury selection, denying plaintiff a fair trial. However, under Federal Rules of Evidence 606(b), certain juror testimony regarding what occurred in a jury room is inadmissible “[d]uring an inquiry into the validity of a verdict.” This rule disallows plaintiff from seeking a new trial, a unanimous Supreme Court says.

The Court notes that "If a juror was dishonest during voir dire and an honest response would have provided a valid basis to challenge that juror for cause, the verdict must be invalidated." That language does not help plaintiff. "As enacted, Rule 606(b) prohibited the use of any evidence of juror deliberations, subject only to the express exceptions for extraneous information and outside influences." In enacting Rule 606, Congress declined to "permit[] the introduction of evidence of deliberations to show dishonesty during voir dire." Congress wanted jurors to be able to deliberate without fear that their private deliberations (which take place behind closed doors) would be exposed and picked apart. What happens in the jury room stays in the jury room.

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