Recent Developments in the Law on Jurors

Sometimes a series of news items come across our desk in quick succession and we can’t help but see connections.  And sometimes, like the Globe’s sports columnist Dan O’Shaughnessy, we’re just trying to string together a number of random ideas on deadline.  In the hope that you’ll view this more in the first category than the second, here’s the scoop on three recent developments regarding juries:

 

Racial Bias in the Jury Room

In a case that tested the sanctity of juror deliberations, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado that a defendant could seek a new trial based on a showing that one of the jurors who convicted him was racially biased, even though this information emerged from the jury room rather than voir dire.  The 5-3 decision, released on March 6, held that when a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the common-law no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury-trial guarantee.

Jury deliberations are presumed to be secret, and jurors generally cannot testify after a verdict that improper considerations had swayed the jury.  Over the years, that rule has been codified in state and federal rules of evidence, but it falls short of a blanket prohibition on piercing the veil.  In fact, juror testimony was already permitted to show that (1) the jury was given improper information from outside about the case, (2) someone tampered with the jury with bribes or threats, or (3) someone on the jury wrote down the wrong verdict on the official form.

The facts in Pena-Rodriguez are troubling and disheartening, to say the least: After the defendant was convicted of a sex offense, two jurors came forward to allege that another juror had injected into deliberations his own opinion—as a former police officer, no less—that the defendant must be guilty of a sex offense “because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want”—and that that “nine times out of ten,” Mexican men are guilty of “being aggressive toward women and young girls.”  Nevertheless, following the Colorado rule, the trial court refused to hear the evidence, and an appellate court affirmed the conviction.

In previous cases, the Court had declined to allow testimony from former jurors regarding either fellow jurors’ drug and alcohol use or their lies during voir dire about impartiality.  Here, though, the Court ruled that racial animus is different.  Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy called it “a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice,” and one that “implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns.”  Thus, a “constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed … is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.”  The defendant was granted a new trial.

 

Trial Judge’s Discretion on Peremptory Challenges

Meanwhile, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) issued a decision on February 28 in the closely-watched case of Commonwealth v. Oberle (SJC 12149).  A unanimous high court let stand a conviction in spite of the defendant’s claims that the trial judge had improperly denied his use of a peremptory challenge.

The defendant faced charges of domestic violence against his girlfriend.  Seven of the first eight venire members called for individual voir dire were women.  After defense counsel exercised his third peremptory strike, all to exclude women, the trial judge sua sponte found a pattern of discrimination and determined that the defendant could not justify two of his three challenges.  When counsel next used a peremptory strike on a female prospective juror, the judge disallowed it, even though the juror had specialized training in detecting and reporting domestic abuse and had done so on three occasions.  In response to counsel’s articulation of this rationale, the judge decided, without further explanation, that this rationale was a pretext, and the juror was seated notwithstanding the defendant’s objection.

The case presented two questions regarding voir dire: What standards, if any, govern a judge’s finding of a pattern of discriminatory strikes early in voir dire when all but one potential juror called for questioning are part of the same discrete group, and that group comprises half the venire; and what restrictions, if any, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Foster v. Chatman places on a trial court’s authority to decide that an unquestionably adequate, group-neutral explanation for use of a peremptory challenge is nevertheless a pretext for impermissible discrimination.

The SJC noted the trial judge’s “considerable discretion” in ruling whether a permissible ground for the peremptory challenge was shown.  After a prima facie showing of a discriminatory pattern is made, the party exercising the challenge bears the burden of showing a “group neutral” explanation for the challenge.  The judge then considers whether the explanation is both “adequate” and “genuine.”  The Court found that “unfortunately” no specific findings on whether the challenge was “adequate” were made here, but even assuming the explanation was adequate, “the judge was not thereby obligated to accept that explanation as genuine.”  Therefore, the judge did not abuse his discretion by finding a lack of genuineness and denying the defendant’s peremptory challenge on this basis.  The defendant’s claim was rejected, and the conviction was upheld.

 

Post-Verdict Juror Contact by Attorneys

Those two cases dealt with the end (deliberations) and the beginning (voir dire) of jury service, respectively.  But what about after jury service has concluded?  Specifically, when and how can a trial attorney make contact with jurors after they have rendered a verdict and been dismissed?  That is the subject of a new set of amendments to the M.R.P.C. as proposed by the Standing Advisory Committee on the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Specifically, the changes to Rule 3.5, which addresses post-verdict juror contact, would add a new subparagraph (4) to Rule 3.5(c), as well as replace Comment 3 to Rule 3.5(c).  The proposed amendments are ultimately meant to conform the rule to the SJC’s decision last year in Commonwealth v. Moore.

A little background is in order: In 2014, the BBA’s Ethics Committee submitted comments to the Standing Advisory Committee on its then-proposed amendments to Rule 3.5, expressing support for the changes, which would permit post-verdict contact in the absence of a contrary order and subject to certain restrictions—but also noting that the rule might not immediately apply because of existing common law to the contrary.  The revisions to Rule 3.5 were adopted and became effective in July 2015.  But the Moore case, as anticipated by the Ethics Committee’s comments, raised questions about whether the amended rule effectively superseded common law, and if so, whether the rule allows for contact with jurors discharged prior to the effective date of the amendment.

Ultimately, the SJC held that the new Rule 3.5 did overrule the previous common-law rule requiring attorneys to seek the leave of court before post-verdict contact, but did not overrule other common-law principles, such as those limiting post-verdict inquiry of jurors to matters relating to extraneous influences.  The Moore court also offered guidelines for post-verdict contact, including a requirement of notice to opposing counsel before seeking juror contact.  The amendments to Rule 3.5 reflect this holding with new language preventing a lawyer from communicating with a juror after discharge if “the communication is initiated without the notice required by law.”  The proposed comments explain in more detail the specific notice requirements, outlining how much notice must be given and what content must be included.

Providing comments on these sorts of changes is an important service we provide to the court system.  Just last week, we wrote here about a series of comments we submitted recently.  And we are currently working to gather the input of our steering committees on not only the proposed rules on juror contact but also changes to the M.R.P.C. rule governing retention of client files.  Both are due on May 1, and we will follow up to find out what the final rules, as adopted by the SJC, ultimately look like.

—Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association