Court of Appeal:
Judge Lacked Power to Reassemble Jurors to Determine If Allegation of Prior Was Valid
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Once a judge told jurors, “You are all excused from jury duty,” he was powerless to order the bailiff to gather them for further deliberations after the prosecutor pointed out that no determination had been made by them as to whether a prior had been validly alleged, Div. Five of the First District Court of Appeal has held.
“[W]e conclude that the court lost jurisdiction over the jurors before they were ostensibly reconvened, thus rendering their verdict as to appellant’s prior serious felony conviction a nullity,” Napa Superior Court Judge Monique Langhorne, sitting on assignment, said in the published portion of an opinion, filed Tuesday.
Jurors in the courtroom of Solano Superior Court Judge William Pendergast III found Merlin Sylvester Jones guilty of first-degree murder and being a felon in possession of a firearm and found true the allegation that he had personally used a firearm causing death. The judgment, based on those findings, was not disturbed.
However, it reverses the judgment to the extent that the reassembled jurors found that it was found true that Jones had previously been found guilty of a serious felony—second degree robbery—and orders that Jones, on remand, be resentenced without an enhancement based on that finding.
Released From Admonition
Langhorne recited that the jury turned in its verdict at 10:10 a.m. and was discharged. Pendergast told jurors:
“I’ve told you throughout this case, you can’t talk about the case with anyone. Well, that’s over. Now, if you want to talk about the case, you can….”
A short time later, the prosecutor reminded the judge that a finding had not been made on the prior and Pendergast told the bailiff:
“Hang on. Can you tell the jurors to wait. Tell them they can’t leave yet.”
At 2:05 p.m., the judge ordered that the jurors be brought in.
Months later, in denying Jones’s motion for new trial, Pendergast noted that the jurors “never even left the courthouse.”
The issue, the pro tem justice wrote, was “whether the jury left the court’s control.”
“[T]he jurors were discharged and freed of any admonition shortly after 10:10 a.m. and did not return to the courtroom until hours later, at 2:05 p.m. The trial court’s contemporaneous instructions to the bailiff, along with the trial court’s own remarks months later, suggest that the jurors stayed within the courthouse, but the record is silent as to whether they abided by the terms of the admonition [not to discuss the case] from which they had already been released. The record does not account for the jurors’ conduct or specific whereabouts during their hours-long absence from the courtroom, and it is not clear whether even the trial court had such knowledge at the time. Given such a paucity of evidence, we cannot conclude that the jury remained within the court’s control.”
“Accordingly, we conclude that the court lost jurisdiction over the jurors before they were ostensibly reconvened, thus rendering their verdict as to appellant’s prior serious felony conviction a nullity.”
The case is People v. Jones, 2023 S.O.S. 1350.
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