Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Court of Appeal Orders New Hearing on Juror Misconduct Claim
Alleged Use of Cell Phone to Access Definition of ‘Reasonable Doubt’ Presumed Prejudicial, Panel Says
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A juror in a Los Angeles Superior Court robbery case may have committed prejudicial misconduct by reading a definition of reasonable doubt from a website accessed via cell phone, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Five affirmed Eddie Bryant’s robbery conviction, as well as the finding that he personally used a firearm during the commission of the crime. But it remanded to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on Bryant’s motion for new trial.
In doing so, the court said it was error for Judge Gail Ruderman Feuer to rely on jurors’ unsworn statements in determining that no prejudice occurred. While both prosecution and defense stipulated to having the statements considered, it is “settled law” that the trial court may only rely on sworn affidavits in considering a juror misconduct claim, Justice Sandy Kriegler wrote for the Court of Appeal.
Feuer sentenced Bryant to 12 years in prison, including a 10-year firearms enhancement, for the 2008 robbery of Felicia Davis. Davis said she was walking to her car at about 1:45 a.m. after a party when Bryant, whom she recognized from the party, came up to her, gun in hand, and demanded her cell phone, which she placed on the trunk of her car as Bryant demanded.
A friend of Davis, who was with her at the time, called the manager of the club where the party took place and described the robber to him. He later testified that he saw Bryant, who matched the description, in front of the club and watched him get in a car, which was later stopped by police.
Davis and her friend both identified Bryant at a show-up after the stop, and the cell phone and a loaded gun were retrieved from beneath the back seat.
Bryant, who had no prior convictions, testified at the March 2009 that he had never committed a crime, did not possess a gun, and did not rob Bryant. He suggested that one of the other men in his car committed the robbery and placed the gun under the seat.
The defense also presented several character witnesses.
Jurors began deliberations on a Thursday and reached a verdict on Friday morning. The defense subsequently requested release of juror identifying information in order to investigate a possible motion for new trial, and the judge granted the request.
After several continuances for further investigation, the defense filed its motion, accompanied by juror’s statement asserting that another juror had improperly accessed the Internet to obtain a definition of reasonable doubt. This occurred after the judge declined a request, on the first day of deliberations, for a definition beyond that contained in the previous instructions.
The statement was titled a “declaration” but was neither notarized nor signed under penalty of perjury. The defense also claimed that jurors had violated the judge’s instructions by discussing what the possible sentence would be, and that a juror told the others that they might have to continue deliberating for two weeks if a verdict were not reached.
In opposition, the prosecution submitted unsworn reports by its investigator, accompanied by unsworn statements from all 12 jurors. Those statements addressed only the issue of whether a juror read a definition of reasonable doubt, whether that definition was accessed by using a cell phone, and whether the definition affected the verdict.
Prosecutors said they were unaware of the other defense claims until after they completed their investigation.
In statements submitted by the prosecution, several jurors said a juror had used a cell phone to obtain an online definition of reasonable doubt, but none said they were influenced by it. Others said they heard such a definition but were unsure how it was obtained, while others said that they had not heard anyone read a definition or did not remember it.
After lawyers for both sides agreed that the statements could be considered even though they were unsworn, the judge ruled that misconduct had occurred, but that the presumption of prejudice was rebutted because there was no explanation of what the definition was—so it could not be determined whether it differed from that given in the instructions—and because there was no indication that it affected any juror’s verdict or that the other alleged misconduct did so either.
But Kriegler, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge erred both in relying on unsworn statements and in finding that the presumption of prejudice had been rebutted.
“...California courts have consistently held that properly executed juror affidavits are required to establish jury misconduct of the type involved in this case,” the justice wrote.
He went on to say that the juror misconduct claims were serious, and should not have been rejected on the limited record.
The justice wrote:
“If it is perilous for the trial court to tinker with the definition of reasonable doubt, it is no less so for the jury to research and obtain another definition of reasonable doubt during deliberations, and a presumption of prejudice would arise under settled law. It is difficult to imagine how the presumption of prejudice could be rebutted in the absence of evidence as to what definition of reasonable doubt was accessed by the jury during deliberations.”
Competent evidence that jurors considered the length of the defendant’s possible sentence might also support a new trial, the justice said.
The panel did, however, reject Bryant’s claim that there was insufficient evidence to support the “10-20-Life” law enhancement. Kriegler said it was up to the jury to determine whether the defendant’s carrying of the firearm at his side and menacing tone of voice caused the victim to give up her phone, as she testified.
“Contrary to defendant’s argument, the prosecution was not required to prove that defendant pointed the gun at Davis or expressly threatened her with the weapon,” the jurist wrote.
The case is People v. Bryant, 11 S.O.S. 442.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company