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Sometimes The Problem With The Jury System Is The Jurors

Joseph P. Collins was charged with securities fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and conspiracy. He went to trial and, we can imagine, spent weeks – possibly months – working with his lawyers to diligently defend himself and his rights. His trial took twenty-two days of testimony – more than four weeks in a federal courtroom.

Finally, it was messed up by two maladjusted jurors and a judge who wanted to handle things alone.

1330873_courthouse.jpgWe are all bit players in each other’s lives. Everyone understands that. In Mr. Collins’ case, however, it’s not unlike a world where Rosencrantz and Gildenstern decide that they’d rather kill Hamlet than travel with him.

The jurors started deliberating on Mr. Collins’ fate on July 1, 2009. That same day, completely unrelated to this case, the Coast Guard published new regulations for fireworks safety in Massachusetts, and a new income-based payment option for student loans became available.

On the fifth day of deliberations, the jurors were having trouble. They sent a note to the court describing that they were having a hard time reaching a verdict. The court, after consulting with the attorneys for the government and Mr. Collins, sent a note back, saying that they should keep at it.

Later that day, a Court Security Officer reported hearing a kerfuffle from inside the jury room. The CSO entered the jury deliberation room. There, one juror accused another juror of physically threatening him.

The trial judge was alerted. He brought the jury back into the courtroom and told them “to show respect for one another.” He then sent them home for the day.

The next morning, shortly before 10 a.m., two notes came out from the jurors. The first was from juror number 4. It read,

I am writing to express my concern regarding the conduct of juror number 9 . . . . Although I appreciate your efforts to control the frequent insults I’ve endured, the threat of bodily harm brings this abuse to a whole new level. Specifically, in a loud and belligerent man[ne]r juror [9] threatened to “cut off your (my) finger.” She made that statement twice. In the same tirade she stated, “I will have my husband take care of you.” These threats were made yesterday afternoon July 8, 2009.
Rest assured I will not allow such threats and intimidation [to] alter my vote when it comes to determ[in]ing a verdict in this case. I am concerned, how[ev]er, [that] hearing these threats may affect other jurors. Regardless, I believe this is not the proper way to deliberate and the Court should be made aware of this conduct.

The second note was from the foreperson.

In regards to the earlier note . . . from Juror 4 . . . , it is my personal opinion that the altercation yesterday could be traced to both parties involved. There ha[ve] also been conversations on numerous occassions [sic] regarding respectfulness on the part of Juror 4.

Imagine sitting in a courtroom, nervously waiting to hear if you’ll be convicted of several serious fraud offenses, when you learn that two of the people deciding your fate are spending their time blaming each other for not being more respectful. Awesome.

Later that afternoon, the foreperson sent another note saying,

There’s been some concern amongst some of the juror’s [sic] regarding odd behavior on the part of Juror #4 . . . . During deliberations on 7/2, [Juror 4] changed his vote on a charge, bringing a unanimous decision. However, [Juror 4] then attempted to make his vote contingent upon the room agreeing blindly on a charge to be voted on later. He wanted to barter.
In my opinion, this is at the heart of yesterday’s altercation between juror’s [sic] 4 and [9].
To compound this issue, juror 4 has made it clear he would prefer to be a hung jury than do further evidence research.

The court decided that it needed to have a private conversation with Juror 4. It told the parties so. The defense lawyer said that he was not agreeing that the court should speak privately with Juror 4.

Juror 4 and the court had a conversation which is remarkable only that it shows the extent to which a federal district court judge is willing to delve into a terribly dull he said/she said conversation to avoid retrying a multi-week fraud trial. The court encouraged Juror 4 to keep an open mind, and reminded him that it was really important to try to reach a verdict.

The next day the jury sent out a note that they had a partial verdict. Mr. Collins was convicted of two counts of securities fraud, two counts of wire fraud, and conspiracy.

In United States v. Collins, the Second Circuit sent the case back for a new trial.

The court of appeals held that a person has a right to be present at each part of their trial. That includes when you talk to jurors.

The appellate court found that the district court’s remarks to Juror 4 were a supplemental instruction. And,

When a supplemental instruction is given ex parte, without first consulting counsel, it violates a defendant’s right to be present.

Moreover, the Second Circuit noted that,

Where, as here, the ex parte communication involves a supplemental instruction to a single juror in a minority position, the potential for prejudice is particularly acute.

And so, Mr. Collins goes back for a new trial. Surely, after his first, he’ll have lots of trust in the process of trial by jury.

Related Post: Going to Prison For What A Jury Doesn’t Think You Did