New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

State v. Mahoney – NJ Appellate Panel Rules that Deliberating Jurors Cannot Speak at Sentencing

John Mahoney shot and killed his father.  He was subsequently indicted for first-degree murder, weapons offenses and hindering apprehension, and the case proceeded to trial.  His defense was battered child syndrome – his actions toward his father were motivated by the latter’s physical and emotional abuse.  The jury convicted him of, among other things, first-degree aggravated manslaughter.

During deliberations, the jury sent the judge an unsolicited note saying, in part, that Mahoney should have significant therapy.  Shortly after the verdict, a juror wrote to Mahoney saying that he should have a second chance in life.  Mahoney responded, and the juror wrote him another letter saying that she struggled emotionally about the facts of the case.  This juror then wrote a letter to the judge that revealed the mental impressions of the jury, and stated further that this was a complicated and emotionally difficult case.  The juror asked the judge to place Mahoney on probation and require him to undergo extensive mental health therapy.

A second juror also wrote to Mahoney, the judge and defense counsel.  This letter also revealed the jury’s mental impressions, as well as that juror’s own issues with the case.  This juror apparently spoke to the other juror that wrote to Mahoney, and stated that s/he planned to contact defense counsel and write to the judge.  Significantly, the second juror stated that the jury was conflicted in convicting Mahoney of aggravated manslaughter.  Like the first juror, this juror believed that Mahoney needed treatment as opposed to punishment.  S/he also wrote to defense counsel on behalf of several jurors.  This letter revealed the jury’s deliberative mental impressions, and indicated that the jury wanted Mahoney to receive treatment rather than punishment.

Defense counsel then sent all of the letters to the judge, and stated that the two jurors described above would speak at sentencing.  He also sent the judge a statement he received from the two jurors that, among other things, revealed the jury’s mental impressions, indicated that the jury reached a compromise verdict, and requested leniency and psychological help for Mahoney.

The trial judge ultimately decided to allow the two jurors to speak at sentencing, provided that they did not discuss or disclose what happened during deliberations.  The state sought leave to appeal this Order to the Appellate Division, arguing that the judge abused his discretion by allowing the jurors to address the court at sentencing.

The Appellate Division agreed with the state.  The panel began by noting that sentencing courts can allow different people to appear at sentencing and speak on a defendant’s behalf.  However, the panel then went on to discuss the very distinct and well-defined roles of the judge and jury at trial.  A jury’s role is to decide facts and determine whether the state has proven each element of each offense beyond a reasonable doubt, all in accordance with the judge’s instructions.  Once a jury decides that a defendant is guilty of an offense, the judge then has the task of formulating and imposing punishment.  Allowing jurors to speak at sentencing would distract the jury from its role as judge of the facts, and would also undermine the sanctity of the jury’s deliberative process.  A jury’s mental impressions of a case, which develop during deliberations, cannot be revealed.  The court noted further that the defendant, as well as their family members and friends, can address the court at sentencing, and provide information relevant to formulation of punishment.  Against this backdrop, the panel reversed the trial judge’s Order.

The panel’s decision in this matter was correct.  Our jury system is based, in large part, upon secrecy of deliberations.  What happens in the jury room should stay there.  Jurors should not reveal the content of their deliberations to anyone including (and especially) the media.  It hurts all of us by undermining the integrity of the system.

However, this is a far cry from saying that defense counsel should forego the opportunity to make a thorough and effective presentation on defendant’s behalf at sentencing.  Prior to the hearing, defense counsel can have friends and family members write letters to the judge on defendant’s behalf.  These letters should be reviewed by defense counsel prior to being submitted to the court.  In fact, the letters can be attached as an exhibit to a sentencing memorandum prepared by defense counsel that contains arguments supporting applicable mitigating factors, and arguing against aggravating factors that may be raised by the state.  Defense counsel can also prepare people to speak on his client’s behalf at the sentencing hearing, prepare his client to address the court (the defendant has an absolute right to do so), and then make their own verbal presentation in further support of their sentencing position.

Cases raising mental health issues present special concerns.  Mahoney was probably evaluated by one or more mental health professionals for purposes of presenting his defense at trial.  Portions of those evaluations could undoubtedly serve as a basis for arguing in favor of applying certain mitigating factors.  In cases where a defendant with mental health issues pleads guilty without a trial, defense counsel should consider having their client evaluated to assist in arguing for mitigating factors at sentencing.

In any event, it is clearly possible for defense counsel to make an effective presentation at sentencing without relying on deliberating jurors.  Adopting this course bolsters the integrity of our criminal justice system.