Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Denial of Post-Trial Access to Jurors No Due Process Violation—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A defendant’s due process rights were not violated when jurors were secretly allowed to leave the courthouse by a non-public exit after delivering their verdict, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Patrick J. Santos Jr.’s conviction and 50-year-to-life sentence for first degree murder with a firearm were affirmed by Div. Five, which also rejected a constitutional challenge to a state statute that gives the court discretion over whether juror information is unsealed post-verdict.
Jurors found Santos guilty of the killing of a security guard during the robbery of a jeweler at the El Dorado Swap Meet. Prosecutors presented evidence that Santos and his accomplices, whom he later identified to police, were affiliated with “66,” part of the East Coast Crips gang.
When the jury returned to the courtroom with its verdict, jurors advised the clerk that they wanted to leave the courtroom without talking to anyone, preferably “by a different way.” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor instructed the jurors, pursuant to CALJIC No. 17.60, that they were free to discuss, or not discuss, the case with others, including the parties, and allowed them to leave the courthouse via a private exit, without informing defense counsel.
The defense subsequently filed a motion for disclosure of juror information pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 237. The statute provides that jurors’ names, addresses, and telephone numbers will be sealed once a verdict is delivered, and may be unsealed only upon motion citing a necessity for the information to move for a new trial or for another lawful purpose.
The defense argued that because it was unable to discuss the case with the jurors, or even to ask them whether they wished to discuss the case, it could not determine whether juror misconduct occurred. Pastor denied the motion, saying there was no evidence to support a claim of juror misconduct.
Justice Sandy Kriegler, writing for the Court of Appeal, rejected the defense contention that the excusal of the jurors was a critical stage of the proceedings at which the defendant had a right to be present.
“The jury’s request was unrelated to its determination of guilt or innocence, but simply reflected a reasonable concern based upon the severity of the case it had just resolved—a robbery and murder committed by members of a gang with a documented history of violence,” the justice said. “The jury had already reached its verdict at the time of their request to leave privately. The means by which the jury departed had no bearing on defendant’s ability to defend against the charges.”
The U.S. and California high courts, Kriegler noted, have upheld exclusion of a defendant from various parts of a trial, including a hearing to determine the competency of child witnesses, rereading of testimony, a jury view of the crime scene, a bench conference discussing exclusion of the defendant’s spouse from the courtroom, counsel’s jury screening discussions, the judge’s ex parte discussion with a juror, and jury instruction conferences.
The jurist added that even if there was a constitutional violation, it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt given the lack of any evidence of juror misconduct.
The justice went on to reject the contentions that Sec. 237 is unconstitutional as applied to a defendant whose counsel did not have the opportunity to ask jurors whether they were willing to discuss the case, and that Pastor abused his discretion by denying the defendant’s motion to disclose juror information under that section.
The constitutional argument fails, Kriegler said, because post-verdict questioning of jurors is not essential to a fair trial.
“Defendant cites to no authority for the proposition that there is a deeply rooted right in this nation’s history to question the jury about its deliberative process after the verdict as a component of the right to an impartial jury,” the justice wrote. Juror impartiality, Kriegler explained, is secured by such measures as drawing the venire from a cross-section of the community, questioning potential jurors as to their qualifications, and prohibiting bias in the exercise of peremptory challenges
There being no implication of a constitutional right, the justice went on to say, the burden was on the defense to establish prejudice under state law. The trial judge, Kriegler concluded, properly balanced concern for juror privacy and safety against the defendant’s “equally weighty” right to an “untainted” verdict and concluded that the former takes precedence when there is no evidence of juror misconduct.
Attorneys on appeal were Allen G. Weinberg, by appointment, for the defendant and Deputy Attorneys General Susan D. Martynec and Ellen Birnbaum Kerh for the state.
The case is People v. Santos, 07 S.O.S. 864.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company