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Jurors Doing Justice & Sixth Amendment | 26 May 2011

9th Circuit Panel Rules Juror Can’t Be Discharged Due to His Views on the Merits of a Case

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Eugene Volokh reports on a recent Ninth Circuit ruling in the case of Williams v. Cavazos in which a juror, who was reluctant to convict, was dismissed in the middle of deliberations:
Dismissing a Holdout Juror in the Middle of Deliberations Because “His Mind Is Bent . . . Against the Prosecution”

Volokh quotes from the decision:

It is just as clear, however, that the Sixth Amendment does not allow a trial judge to discharge a juror on account of his views of the merits of the case…. The jury is the only actor permitted to determine guilt — not the judge. It is well-established, of course, that “a judge may not direct a verdict of guilty no matter how conclusive the evidence” in a criminal case. It would similarly vitiate the “essential” role of a jury to act as a “safeguard” against both the power of the state and the court for a judge to selectively dismiss jurors based on the views of the merits of the case they express during deliberations. Such dismissals are thus prohibited as well, because a court cannot “do indirectly that which it has no power to do directly.”

Indeed, no one, including the judge, is even supposed to be aware of the views of individual jurors during deliberations, because a jury’s independence is best guaranteed by secret deliberations, such that jurors may “return a verdict freely according to their conscience” and their “conduct in the jury room [may be] untrammeled by the fear of embarrassing publicity.” …

The decision in full can be found here (.pdf).

If you are serving on a jury, note that you need not—and in fact may do better not to—bring up jury nullification or the idea of not agreeing with or not falling the law as the judge dictates it to you. Instead, you can simply express that you have doubts about the merits of the case, you are not convinced by the evidence, and so on. The Ninth Circut Court of Appeals makes clear in this decision reversing the lower court that reasonable doubt is NOT a Constitutional reason for dismissal.

As explained in the decision:

According to the foreman, on the first day of deliberations, Juror No. 6 had brought up historical instances “when juries have refused to follow the law,” such as in pre-Civil War prosecutions for harboring fugitive slaves and during the Vietnam War era for burning draft cards. The foreman expressed his opinion that Juror No. 6 had “a belief . . . that [there] is a civic responsibility to — there’s a name for this — civil disobedience. There’s a responsibility to be disobedient in that case.” However, the foreman testified that when he had asked Juror No. 6 explicitly “if that’s what was going on here,” the juror answered “no.”

The foreman testified that Juror No. 6 had expressed his view that first degree murder was a severe charge which affected the “way he interprets the evidence and the standard he uses for doubt.” Juror No. 6, according to the foreman, had made a “fairly clear statement . . . that connects the severity of the charge with — explicitly of first degree murder with his need for a higher standard.” The foreman conceded that Juror No. 6 had not explicitly expressed an unwillingness to follow the law or the jury instructions on the standard of proof. He also agreed that the juror had attempted to explain “the basis for his reasonable doubt” to the other jurors many times and had actively engaged in “intellectual conversation with them, listening to their questions, trying to answer them.”

Remember that when you serve as a juror, justice may depend on you and on how you conduct yourself throughout the trial. Surviving voir dire and getting on the jury is only the beginning. Be sure to conduct yourself in a manner which leaves the judge no excuse—not even the tiniest pretext—on which he can dismiss you. In a courtroom in which the government is not only the defendant’s opponent but also the referee, your service as a fully informed juror can help level the playing field and ultimately lead to a just verdict.

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