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Potential of juror coercion during deliberations requires new trial

United States v. Lemurel E. Williams, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 15-1194, 4/26/16

Williams is entitled to a new trial because under the totality of the circumstances, the jury’s continued deliberations after an aborted delivery of the initial verdict were impermissibly coercive.

The jury returned a guilty verdict but, during the polling of the jurors, the first juror responded “no” to the question of whether his verdict was guilty. The judge didn’t hear that answer, apparently, but after a sidebar at which the defense pointed out that Juror 1 answered “no” the jurors were polled again, and again Juror 1 said “no.” The judge told the jury to renew deliberations and reach a unanimous verdict. Ten minutes later the jury told the judge they had misunderstood the question and that they had a verdict; the court asked Juror 1 by name if she’d misunderstood the question, and she said “yes.” After this polling resulted in 12 “yes” answers the court accepted the verdict. (Slip op. at 2-4).

The test is whether the totality of the circumstances shows a great risk of juror coercion, Lowenfield v. Phelps, 484 U.S. 231, 250 (1988), and in this the test is met. Once Juror 1 rejected the verdict, the polling should have ceased; polling the remaining jurors was pointless and coercive, because it revealed Juror 1 to be the lone dissenter and put pressure on her to change her verdict. While that probably wasn’t the trial judge’s intention, given that he apparently didn’t hear the juror’s first “no” answer, the issue must be considered from the point of view of the juror, not the judge. Further, having heard the juror again say “no” during the second polling, telling the jury to return to deliberations risked even greater coercion. (Slip op. at 10-12). On top of that is the jury’s “strange” response after 10 minutes of re-deliberation—that “we,” not Juror 1, misunderstood the polling question, and without any explanation of or inquiry into what the “misunderstanding” was—and the judge’s directly asking Juror 1 whether “I have it right that you misunderstood” the polling question, which meant that to reject the verdict Juror 1 would have had to tell the judge that he was wrong, “no easy task for a juror, especially one already enduring coercive circumstances.” (Slip op. at 14-15).

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