Criminal Procedure—Juror Misconduct And Bias—Assessing The Prejudicial Effect Of Extra-Judicial Communications By Jurors In A Technologically Advanced Society

by Racquel Martin

In March 2010, a Davidson County grand jury indicted the defendant for the first-degree murder of Zurisaday Villanueva.  Before jury selection began on March 8, 2010, the trial court informed prospective jurors that using their cell phones to communicate and learn about a trial would be “highly improper” and that their decision should only be based on the law and evidence that would be presented in the courtroom.  During the jury-selection process, the trial court, prosecutors, and defense attorneys questioned the prospective jurors about whether they knew various individuals that were involved in the investigation or would be involved in the trial.  Despite the attorneys’ knowledge that Dr. Adele Lewis, an assistant medical examiner and witness for the State, had trained at Vanderbilt University, neither the attorneys nor the trial court asked any of the jurors if they knew Dr. Lewis.  Consequently, three of the prospective jurors who were eventually seated on the jury worked at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.  After the jury was selected, the trial court instructed the jurors to not speak to anyone involved in the case about any matter until the conclusion of the trial.

On March 9, 2010, Dr. Lewis testified about the two gun shot wounds that the victim had received.  Although Dr. Lewis could not determine which shot had been fired first, she concluded that the death of the victim was a homicide.  After the State rested, the defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal, but the trial court denied the motion.  Subsequently, the defense rested, the parties made their closing arguments, and the court adjourned the proceedings for the day.

When the trial resumed the following day, the trial court charged the jury and then instructed the jury to begin deliberating.  Approximately one hour after deliberations began, the trial judge received an email from Dr. Lewis explaining that one of the jurors had communicated with her via Facebook after her testimony the previous day.  In the email, Dr. Lewis included a transcript of the conversation between her and Juror Mitchell in which Juror Mitchell stated that he recognized Dr. Lewis from Vanderbilt, and that he knew there was a risk of a mistrial if the court discovered that they knew one another.  Despite the fact that the trial court provided copies of the email to both trial attorneys, the trial record contained no information regarding when the trial judge distributed the email, whether the trial judge and the attorneys discussed the email during the jury’s deliberations, or what was said during the discussion, if one occurred.

At the conclusion of their deliberations, the jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder.  After the trial court excused the jury, the defense counsel asked the trial judge if the court could question Juror Mitchell about his communication with Dr. Lewis and inquire about any information that he might have obtained other than what had been disclosed to the court.  The trial court stated that it was satisfied with the communication that it had received from Dr. Lewis and refused to question Juror Mitchell, Dr. Lewis, or any other jurors in open court.  The trial judge then sentenced the defendant to life in prison.

The defendant moved for a new trial, arguing that he was denied a fair trial because the court forbade him from questioning Juror Mitchell about his extra-judicial communication with Dr. Lewis and any other potential violations of the instructions that the trial court gave to the jury.  Following the denial of the motion for a new trial by the trial court, the defendant raised the issue of possible juror misconduct again on appeal.  The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the decision of the trial court not to question Juror Mitchell.  The appellate court characterized the Facebook exchange as “mere interactions” between a juror and a third person and reasoned that “the trial court has the discretion to determine whether a jury has acted impartially.”  On grant of the defendant’s application for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, held, vacated and remanded.

The trial court erred in its decision not to immediately conduct an evidentiary hearing after learning of the Facebook communication between Juror Mitchell and Dr. Lewis because: (1) Dr. Lewis’s email proved that an extra-judicial communication between her and Juror Mitchell had occurred; (2) the contents of the email were admissible under the Tennessee Rule of Evidence 606(b); (3) the email triggered a rebuttable presumption of prejudice to the defendant, which thereby required the State to explain the conduct or to demonstrate that it was harmless; and (4) the record was inadequate for the court to determine whether the extra-judicial communication between Dr. Lewis and Juror Mitchell was not prejudicial. State v. Smith, 418 S.W.3d 38 (Tenn. 2013).

 

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