Thursday, September 6, 2012

On jury questions

I never cease to be amazed by the questions that juries will ask while they're in deliberations. Sometimes they ask pretty straightforward questions, like for readbacks of particular testimony or to watch a videotaped interview again. Sometimes they'll ask for more cigarette breaks, something else for lunch, or to get rid of that awful juror who is annoying everyone else. Sometimes they'll ask for clarification on a point of law that the judge can't answer because even the judge doesn't know the answer. (And, boy, when it's that one, it's incredibly frustrating for the defense attorney because it shouldn't be up to the jury to decide what the dang law is!)

But this particular question is the type of question that most strikes fear into my heart, into the heart of any criminal lawyer as we are forced to rely on jurors to settle our cases. "What does unanimous mean?" Really? That's not an ambiguous word with multiple possible meanings. It's not a word that should lead to any jury confusion. Yes, it's a four syllable word, but it's a pretty simple one. Unanimous means agreed on by all. That's how the district court answered the Drew Peterson jury's question. I personally find it amusing that the state wanted the judge simply to refer the jury to their instructions because if the instructions they'd already received would answer the question for these idiots, the jurors wouldn't have asked the question. (Personally, I fall in the camp of those who argue that if the jury asks a simple question, it should be answered directly.)

Now I get that not all trials in all states require unanimous jury verdicts. Some states don't require unanimous verdicts for some civil cases or for misdemeanors or for sentencing recommendations on capital cases. But I'm fairly confident that in those cases where verdicts can be something like 10-2, those juries are so informed. Juries generally aren't left to guess about how many votes they need on each side to have reached a verdict.

I'd like to think that this jury is really asking something more like, "What do we do if we aren't unanimous?" But that isn't what they asked. Instead, they asked what this obvious, basic word means. And as someone who has to rely on juries to decide whether her clients live or die, this question terrifies me. Because sometimes the people holding my client's life in their hands are total idiots.

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