October 30, 2011
People v. Harmon Juror Impartiality
Facts: The prosecution charged and a jury convicted Mr. Harmon of F3 reckless/knowing child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury. During opening statement, the defense hinted that at most negligence occurred, and in closing argued for acquittal of both the charged crime and the lesser negligent child abuse. During the first day of trial, a juror sent out a note which read, “I wish to ask why it is necessary to spend all this time calling witnesses and going round & round on points and facts that both sides agreed to in their opening remarks. It would seem that the disagreement is only over what level of guilt is indicated. Can not [sic] the rest be stipulated? Can we not focus on the distinctions of motive and actions?” Instead of dismissing the juror or declaring a mistrial, as the defense requested, the trial court did nothing.
Issue: Was the trial court under some duty to correct the misapprehension of the juror regarding the guilt of Mr. Harmon prior to jury deliberations?
Reasoning: The Court of Appeals held that when the trial court did absolutely nothing to correct the juror, the trial court deprived Mr. Harmon of his right to due process and a fair trial. Thus, the Court of Appeals reversed Mr. Harmon’s conviction, and remanded the case for re-trial. The Court of Appeals gave a non-exhaustive list of actions the trial court might have taken:
Without intending to provide an exhaustive list
as to what corrective action the trial court might
have taken here, we note that the court might have
(1) spoken to the jurors, (2) advised them that it
had received a note suggesting possible confusion
regarding Harmon's opening statement, (3) reminded
them that Harmon had asserted that he was not
guilty, that he must be presumed innocent, and that
the burden of proof remained on the prosecution,
and (4) inquired as to whether any of them would
have difficulty affording Harmon, until the end of
trial, the presumption of innocence and requiring
the prosecution to prove Harmon's guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt. The court also could have reminded
the jurors that the opening statements of counsel are
not evidence. See CJI–Crim. 1:03 (1983). And the
court could have reiterated its direction to the jury that
it must consider all of the evidence produced during
the trial and determine the facts based on that evidence.
Alternatively, the court could have identified and
dismissed the juror who sent the note and substituted
one of the two alternate jurors. In the circumstances
presented here, we conclude that the failure to take any
such corrective action was error.