Ninth Circuit: Holdout Juror Should Not Have Been Removed
Court Rules State Judge’s Action Violated Murder Defendant’s Constitutional Rights
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A defendant convicted of a gang-related murder is entitled to a new trial, because the trial judge violated the accused’s constitutional rights by removing the lone holdout juror during deliberations, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
A divided panel of the appeals court affirmed a ruling by Senior U.S. District J. Spencer Letts of the Central District of California, who said that a state Court of Appeal decision affirming Marcus C. Sanders’ conviction was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.
The juror in question, who was not identified by name in the opinion, was the subject of a note to the trial judge by the jury foreperson. The juror, the note said, was not following the court’s instruction to avoid being “influenced by mere sentiment, onjecture, sympathy, passion, prejudice, public opinion or public feeling.”
The judge questioned the juror and the foreperson separately. The foreperson complained that the juror was looking at the case emotionally and “just felt that she believed everything the defendant said.”
The juror, however, said she was actively participating in the deliberations, that she was sincerely unconvinced of Sanders’ guilt, and that she was getting “pretty beat up” because she disagreed with her fellow panelists’ view of the evidence.
The judge then asked the juror about her responses to some of the voir dire questions, and learned that she had lived in South Central Los Angeles 25 years earlier, approximately 20 blocks from the area where the crime had occurred, and that her sons, who were in their 30s, had associated with gangs when they were younger.
Asked why she had not revealed that information earlier, she explained that she had truthfully answered all questions put to her, which had been asked in present tense.
She told the court:
“I live in West Los Angeles. My sons were in their teens [when I lived in the South Central area]. One would be 40 next week, and the other is 34. They were like small kids when I stayed over in an area that...is not far from [the murder location.] So when I was asked do I live in an area [with gang activity], to my knowledge I do not because I haven’t been in that area [where the murder took place] since then.”
The judge agreed with the prosecution that the juror had withheld information which, had it been disclosed, would have resulted in a peremptory challenge. He ordered the juror replaced by an alternate, and the jury came back with a guilty verdict three hours later.
Judge Sidney Thomas, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said it was constitutional error for the trial judge to remove a juror without a showing of actual bias or willful misconduct. Letts, he said, was correct in finding that the juror directly and honestly answered all of the questions put to her.
The questions, Thomas emphasized, were “about discrete and particular contacts with gangs and are not open-ended queries into all possible contacts with gangs or gang members.”
Judge Richard A. Paez concurred, but Senior Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall dissented, saying the state courts were entitled to greater deference.
“Today’s majority...sweeps aside California’s system of justice—with a weak opinion filled with flawed reasoning—and imposes upon the state the burden of using its notoriously limited resources to re-try the petitioner,” Hall wrote.
Her colleagues, she said, were being “hyper-technical” in their review of the trial judge’s questions and the juror’s responses.
The trial judge’s findings were not unreasonable, she declared, in the context of the entire voir dire. Hall cited the opinion of the Court of Appeal, which noted that the venire members were asked many questions about gangs, including the open-ended “anyone else have any thoughts on the subject,” and suggested that the juror may have intentionally avoided giving answers that would have resulted in a prosecution challenge.
“Far from being unreasonable, this interpretation of the facts is quite sensible,” Hall wrote.
The case is Sanders v. Lamarque, 02-56893.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company