Open the Doors to Jury Deliberations
Towards the end of a trial, after both parties have rested, the jury is given a laundry list of instructions. “You are only to X.” “You cannot do Y.” “At no point are you to do Z.” But, what happens when a juror, or perhaps the whole jury, disregards X and does Y and/or Z? Well, if one of the parties in the suit discovers the malfeasance, then the court may declare a mistrial or punish the jurors guilty of misconduct in rare circumstances. This begs the question: what happens when the jury renders a verdict without discovering any juror misconduct, and information surfaces after trial that a juror or multiple jurors engaged in prohibited conduct?
The answer to that question is almost always nothing, at least at the federal level. The U.S. Supreme Court and Rules of Evidence have historically protected any evidence of conduct occurring during jury deliberation. A recent New York Times article references former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion from the 1980s that justified protecting jury deliberations because a barrage of post-verdict scrutiny of juror conduct would undermine candid discussions during deliberations. Justice O’Connor further reasoned that post-trial juror scrutiny would make it harder for jurors to take unpopular opinions and subject jurors to harassment. The Justice O’Connor opinion involved a case where jurors treated their responsibilities as “one big party.” The jurors drank pitchers of beer, liters of wine, smoked marijuana, and even consumed cocaine. After the trial, a judge refused to consider this evidence of juror misconduct when denying a mistrial. Despite such outrageous behavior, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider this evidence when granting a mistrial.
Some states have adopted contrary rules. In 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court decided Fleshner v. Pepose Vision Institute that allowed the consideration of post-verdict evidence of juror racial bias. The holding in Fleshner proved beneficial in 2012 in Amrine v. Ossman, a case in which a judge ordered a new trial based on post-verdict evidence of juror misconduct. During deliberations, a Caucasian juror proclaimed he was not going to give Amrine (who is African-American) anything and called Amrine a racial slur. Because the case was heard in Missouri state court, Amrine’s was granted a new trial and the juror’s racial bias did not impact the outcome of his case. But, the outcome would have been very different at the federal level and Amrine would be stuck with the racially biased jury decision.
In October 2014, next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will revisit the issue regarding the admissibility of evidence of juror bias during deliberations. In Warger v. Shauers, the jury forewoman lied about being biased in a car wreck case during voir dire. During deliberation, the jury forewoman revealed her daughter had been at fault in a fatal car accident. She was able to persuade the jury when she argued her daughter’s life would have been ruined if she had been sued. The jury ruled in favor of the defendant. This information did not come to light until a juror contacted plaintiff’s counsel to inform him of the forewoman’s malfeasance. Thus far, the court has not been able to consider the jury forewoman’s bias in granting a mistrial. Meaning plaintiff was denied the ability to have his case tried by an impartial jury.
Hopefully, the U.S. Supreme Court will provide American citizens with a remedy for biased jurors making their way onto juries. Allowing courts to consider evidence that jurors lied during voir dire and exposed their bias during deliberations does not deter jurors from taking unpopular opinions, nor does it open the floodgates to verdict scrutiny based on juror bias. Such a rule would merely ensure parties to lawsuits that their jury verdicts are free from juror bias.