Juror Fears About COVID-19 Cause Mistrial of Murder Case

final-jur-e headline

State Courts Promote Technology-Assisted Court Proceedings–But Not for Jury Trials

For example, St. Clair County (Alabama) Presiding Judge Phillip Seay has issued an order laying out how non-jury court proceedings will be held in a virtual space due to the coronavirus pandemic.  And in NY State, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks announced that starting April 13, the statewide court system will "take certain preliminary steps to open up access—remote access—to the courts for nonessential pending cases," by having judges examine their dockets for ways to push forward or even resolve cases by holding a video-linked hearing or teleconference.  (With regard to jury trial cancellations generally, as reported in an earlier edition of the Jur-E Bulletin, NCSC publishes here a compendium of state court orders suspending jury trials.)

The prospect of virtual jury trials is a topic of discussion among jury trial observers during the pandemic.  To date, NCSC’s Center for Jury Studies has not learned of any jurisdiction conducting remote jury trials during this difficult time.  If any reader knows of such an occurrence, please inform the Jur-E Bulletin editor.

New Trial Ordered Where Doctor and Nurse Jurors Influence Final Verdict

An Ohio appellate panel found legal error where a trial judge in a car accident case denied a plaintiff motion for a new trial despite learning that a doctor and a nurse on the jury influenced the final verdict by using their personal medical judgments.  A curious feature of the case involves the fact the trial court judge invited the jury to speak with him after the verdict.  Jurors told the judge that the doctor and nurse told their fellow jurors in deliberations that a rear-end car crash, like this one, wouldn’t lead to the fractures the plaintiff claimed. Noteworthy too, the trial court judge previously told the jury not to lean on any medical expertise when deciding on a verdict.

Juror Fears About COVID-19 Cause Mistrial of Murder Case

After voir dire began in a high-profile murder trial in Adams County, Colorado, the trial judge last week declared a mistrial citing the fears expressed by prospective jurors during jury selection. Colorado NBC 9News reports on the citizen feedback that influenced the judge’s decision: "I don’t mind at all doing jury duty but getting around people now is very scary and concerning for my life,” said a 78-year-old prospective juror by email.  Another prospective juror wrote, “I am not comfortable leaving quarantine and congregating in crowds. My senior citizen mother lives with me full-time and I don't want to expose her to anything that could kill her.” Another said, "Due to this coronavirus epidemic, I do not believe that justice can[not] be given out fairly if jurors are angry about being put in harm's way and made to risk their lives because they could be charged and jailed for choosing to keep their family safe.”  Some of the prospective jurors "broke down and cried" while filling out the juror questionnaire or called in later crying about the possibility of having to return because of their fear of COVID-19.  Juror questionnaires also noted citizen fears that the court "does not have a reasonable method to adequately protect these prospective jurors" because people who have the virus may not show any symptoms.  The closure of schools was also a factor because many prospective jurors were left without childcare and few options amid the pandemic.

Let’s See How Differently Australia Manages Jury Trials

Australia’s highest court this month overturned the conviction of former Catholic Cardinal Archbishop George Pell because the jury disregarded “compounding improbabilities.”  The seven-judge panel made its ruling without specifying the premises for its conclusion.  The high-profile case ruling has now caused turmoil.  "It's endemic to various areas in the landscape of Australian governance," said Jason Bosland, a law professor at Melbourne University. "We have this approach of 'Well, you just have to trust us.' It's a problem."  In contrast to the free press and public trial rights contained in the U.S. Constitution, Australian critics point out that, even at the trial stage, the court prevented any mention of additional accusations lodged against Cardinal Pell and pressured news outlets to delete stories already published.  Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, a book by the journalist Louise Milligan, was pulled from bookstores to avoid risking a contempt-of-court charge.  After Cardinal Pell was convicted in December 2018, the verdict was not reported for two months. The court lifted its gag order only after a second trial involving additional accusations was dropped.  "A problem in this case is that the public mostly couldn't watch," said Jeremy Gans, a professor at Melbourne Law School who closely followed the trial. "Most of us didn't know any of the details, and none of us have seen the complainant's testimony."

Large Jury Award Vacated Because of Faulty Instruction on Bicyclist Duties

In Mariano Simota Bailey v. Jacqueline M. Hennessey et al. involving a car/bicycle collision, a New Jersey appellate panel overturned a plaintiff/cyclist verdict because the trial court gave faulty jury instructions that applied a pedestrian’s duty of care to the cyclist.  The panel stated the instructional errors were “clearly capable of affecting the jury's determination as to whether the defendant was negligent, and the jury's allocation of responsibility for the accident.”