Issue (composed by On Point)
Did the circuit court’s answer to a question posed by the jury during deliberations allow the jury to base its verdict on speculation and conjecture?
Because petitions for review are not available on the court’s website, the issue statement was composed based on the court of appeals’ decision and the parties briefs. Also, note that the petition for review was filed by the state because, as recounted in our post on the court of appeals decision, Badzinski was granted a new trial. All that said, it’s pretty clear what the basic issue is, and it is an interesting, though unusual, one. Here’s some background:
Badzinski was charged with sexually assaulting his niece, A.R.B., during a family gathering at the home of his parents. A.R.B. testified the assault occurred in a specific room–the basement laundry room–and there was no evidence it occurred in any other room. But there was also testimony from multiple defense witnesses that it was not possible for the assault to have happened in the laundry room. (Court of appeals decision ¶¶3-5). So if jurors believed A.R.B, the assault happened in the laundry room, nowhere else; if they believed the defense witnesses, the assault couldn’t have happened in the laundry room.
During deliberations, the jury asked two questions. First, they asked if they had to agree on the “place” the assault occurred; the court told them they had to agree it occurred at Badzinski’s parents’ house. They then asked whether they had to agree on which room the assault occurred in; to this question the trial judge answered “no.” (Id. ¶6). A majority of the court of appeals’ panel held this answer was error because it allowed the jurors to ignore the evidence that the assault happened in the laundry room “and let the jurors pick any room or rooms in the house.” (Id. ¶35). This allowed the jury to convict based on speculation, and “we may not permit a guilty verdict to rest on matters beyond the evidence.” (Id. ¶36).
The state defended the trial judge’s answer to the second question by pointing out that the room the assault occurred in is not an essential element of the offense, so juror agreement on that fact is not required. (Id. ¶¶25, 29, 31). But the rationale underlying the court of appeals’ rather brief analysis isn’t the rule about juror agreement on the essential elements of the offense; rather, it’s the rule that a jury verdict can’t be based on speculation. (Id. ¶36). Even if the room isn’t an element of the offense the jurors must agree on, a juror can’t conclude the assault occurred in some other room unless there is some evidence for that conclusion, and there isn’t any such evidence here. To address the court of appeals’ rationale the supreme court will have to decide the legal effect of juror speculation about facts that are not necessary to support an essential element of the offense.
There is another issue. Based on the jury’s questions, the majority accepted that at least one juror believed the assault couldn’t have happened in the laundry room. (Id. ¶34). That conclusion seems sound, given the jury asked first about having to agree on the “place” and then about the “room.” But the state argued it was speculation whether the jury’s questions showed they did not agree on where the assault occurred. (Id. ¶¶25, 28). Perhaps the jury asked those questions not because one or more jurors accepted the defense witnesses’ testimony, but only out of idle curiosity. If so, no juror was left to speculate about where the assault took place. Absurd as it seems that the jury would ask those questions unless some juror was questioning A.R.B.’s testimony about the location of the assault, the supreme court’s handling of the state’s argument on this point could conceivably avoid addressing the rationale of the court of appeals’ decision as well as establish limits on interpreting the meaning of jury questions.