Jurors can Get in Trouble if they Disobey the Court

I suppose it is inevitable with the expansion of social media and connectivity nowadays: every juror comes into the courtroom with a habit of using their phones, and that can be hard to break. In every trial, the court tells the jurors not to discuss the case with themselves, or others. In a long trial, the court remind the jurors every time they take a break, which can add up to dozens of reminders over the course of a trial. Sometimes, the message still doesn’t sink in.

Just a few weeks ago, the New York Court of Appeals, the highest appellate court in New York,  upheld the overturning of a verdict in a high profile murder case against Dr. Robert Neulander, a prominent doctor in central New York that had been convicted of killing his wife. It wasn’t due to the facts of the case, rather it came out near the end of the trial that one of the jurors had been texting throughout the trial with family and friends, to the tune of some 7000 text messages. The only surprising thing was the the trial court had allowed the verdict to stand. “The extensiveness and egregiousness of the disregard, deception and dissembling occurring here leave no alternative but to reverse,” said the court in a unanimous ruling. The juror had even deleted some texts and browser history when her conduct was disclosed.

The court has no choice but to overturn a verdict in such a case, as the confidence would be eroded in the system if the court allowed jurors to so directly (and flagrantly) violate its instructions. A lawful verdict requires the court to hold jurors to their oaths.

Another case of wild juror misconduct was reported today, also in New York, and again the trial court allowed the initial verdict to stand. One of the jurors started having romantic feelings for one of the State’s witnesses, a gang member who had agreed to testify against the defendant to consideration in his own case. The juror wrote a letter to the witness, and a romance blossomed, in spite of the court’s instruction for the jury to avoid contact with anyone involved in the case. She also wrote the prosecutor to ask the State to take it easy on her beau, and to its credit, the DA’s office notified the Defense. Still, the trial court didn’t see a problem with the juror falling for the State’s witness, and let the verdict stand. The appellate court cited the Neulander case, saying “as the Court of Appeals recently reminded us in People v. Neulander, ‘nothing is more basic to the criminal process than the right of an accused to a trial by an impartial jury.'” Sometimes the opinions write themselves. Apparently the juror and the witness made plans to marry… so, silver lining, I guess?

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