State v. Sealy and Investigating Juror Misconduct

Anyone who has ever sat through a jury trial knows the level of attention received by the jury. Tremendous care goes into selecting the jury, as is evident by the nature and extent of the questioning of whole panels and individual jurors, and the related decisions that the parties make concerning peremptory challenges.  But what happens after the jury is selected? How should the court deal with issues of juror misconduct? As the recently decided case of State v. Isakova illustrates, any inappropriate conduct by jurors that comes to a court’s attention must be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.

Defendant was a former corrections officer who was indicted for participating in a scheme to smuggle tobacco into a jail. His conviction was reversed on appeal for various reasons. Among them was a finding by the Appellate Division that the trial court erred in failing to investigate allegations that a juror introduced extraneous information during jury deliberations.

During deliberations, Juror Number Seven sent a note to the trial judge asking him to remove Juror Number Nine because she had family that were cops, her husband was in jail, and her husband used to get things when he was in jail. The court questioned Juror Number Seven after the jury had indicated that it had reached a unanimous verdict. During that colloquy, the juror stated that Juror Number Nine was biased in her opinions and was making several jurors uncomfortable. The trial court refused to interview Juror Number Nine because it believed that there was nothing in Juror Number Seven’s note that triggered a concern about Juror Number Nine’s ability to deliberate with the other jurors.

The Appellate Division concluded that Juror Number Seven’s allegations required, at the very least, closer questioning of Juror Number Seven and likely voir dire of Juror Number Nine. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that Juror Number Nine’s reference to her husband’s experience while incarcerated related directly to the charges before the jury and was not the sort of common life experience or knowledge jurors might have acquired from the media.

One of the legal fictions at the heart of our criminal justice system is that prospective jurors answer the voir dire questions honestly, and always follow the court’s instructions on every issue. Sealy demonstrates that this is not necessarily true, and that jurors do not always provide honest answers to voir dire questions and frequently ignore the judge’s directions. Jurors who do this deprive the defendant, the State and the court of exactly what the promised to deliver, which is a fair and unbiased review of the facts by fair and impartial jurors. When even a suggestion of improper conduct by a juror comes to light, it is the obligation of both the court and all counsel to investigate it as thoroughly and as promptly as possible.

Criminal defense attorney James S. Friedman, Esq., is centrally located in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents defendants charged with crimes in all State and Federal courts in New York City and New Jersey. If you have been charged with a crime, call Mr. Friedman to immediately discuss your case.

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