Episode 9 of The SM JUROR Podcast on Juror Misconduct Law: Does a juror’s incorrect belief about the law result in juror misconduct?
State v. Dressner, 2018-0828 (La. 10/29/18), 255 So. 3d 537.
Summary: Nilgün Aykent Zahour analyzes the juror misconduct issues in State v. Dressner, 2018-0828 (La. 10/29/18), 255 So. 3d 537. The issues we’re going to discuss are a juror’s alleged incorrect beliefs about the law, a juror’s mental processes, the Louisiana “Shield Law”, which is their state version of Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), juror affidavits that are inadmissible under these rules, and the presumption that the jury follows instructions.
Hi, this is Nilgün Zahour from SM JUROR and welcome to The SM JUROR Podcast on Juror Misconduct Law where our motto is, “Don’t let juror misconduct taint your verdict.” We analyze current state and federal juror misconduct cases and provide attorneys with the strategies to identify, preserve and advance juror misconduct issues at trial and on appeal.
And, today in Episode 9, we’re going to be looking at the case of State v. Dressner, which is out of Louisiana. The issues we’re going to discuss are a juror’s alleged incorrect beliefs about the law, a juror’s mental processes, the Louisiana Shield Law, which is their state version of Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), juror affidavits that are inadmissible under these rules, and the presumption that the jury follows instructions. Glad you’re listening because the only evidence you want the jury to hear is in the courtroom. Now let’s take a look at State v, Dressner.
Hi everyone. This is Nilgün Zahour from SM JUROR and in Episode 9 of The SM JUROR Podcast on Juror Misconduct Law, we’re going to be looking at the juror misconduct issues in the case of State v. Dressner, which is out of Louisiana. This case was decided on October 29, 2018, and I’ll be sure to put the full citation of the case in our episode notes. And, if you can, please leave us a review because we want your feedback and want to provide value to our listeners. And of course, if you were involved in a trial where juror misconduct was an issue, please contact us so we can interview you for our podcast.
In this case in 2004, the defendant was found guilty of murder and the jury unanimously agreed to impose a sentence of death in light of the aggravating circumstances that were involved. Here, the aggravating circumstances were that the offense was committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner, and the defendant knowingly created a risk of death or great bodily harm to more than one person. The trial court sentenced him to death by lethal injection pursuant to the jury’s determination and the conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Several years later in 2011, Dressner filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief which was a “shell” application and then counsel was appointed for him and filed two lengthy supplemental applications totally 16 claims for relief. In November of 2017, the district court dismissed seven of the claims on procedural grounds and in January of 2018, the district court summarily denied the remaining claims with written reasons.
The juror misconduct issue the defendant asserted before the Louisiana Supreme Court was that “at least one juror improperly relied upon an incorrect belief in the penalty phase that if they voted for a life sentence, that would mean he would be released from custody after a “’mere 10 years.’” He argued that that misunderstanding influenced that juror, and maybe others, to vote in favor of the death penalty.
In support of his claim, the defendant attached the handwritten affidavit from the juror who allegedly had this belief. Now, in examining the juror’s affidavit, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that the affidavit was inadmissible under Louisiana’s Shield Law, which is their version of Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b). I’m going to read the rule for you, and it gets a little wordy, but don’t worry, we’ll break it down. The rule provides:
Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring in the course of the jury’s deliberations or to the effect of anything upon his or any other juror’s mind or emotions as influencing him to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning his mental processes in connection therewith, except that a juror may testify on the question whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror, and in criminal cases only, whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention.
The rule also addresses affidavits and provides:
Nor may his affidavit or evidence of any statement by him concerning a matter about which he would be precluded from testifying be received for these purposes.
So, if the juror’s affidavit is going to address matters which are precluded by the rule, then the affidavit cannot be received for those purposes.
The opinion itself doesn’t show us the actual contents of the juror’s affidavit, but it’s important to note that in examining the basis of the application for post-conviction relief here, that the juror had an incorrect belief or understanding of the alternative to the death penalty, a red flag should go up because the claim centers on the juror’s belief and not any alleged exposure to extraneous evidence.
So, we need to take apart the Louisiana Shield Law and determine what the rule allows and doesn’t allow in terms of juror affidavits or testimony. If the affidavit concerns a juror’s exposure to outside sources or extraneous sources, then the affidavit is admissible to discuss what occurred. On the other hand, if the affidavit discusses anything about the juror’s state of mind, mental processes or emotions during deliberations, then it’s not going to be admissible.
Now it’s also important to remember that we’re dealing with the presumption that the jury follows the court’s instructions and here, the defendant admitted that the jury was instructed “no less than 10 times” that a life sentence without parole was the only available alternative to the death penalty. “The presumption [here] is that the jury followed the judge’s instructions.”
Also, when we closely examine the defendant’s argument, he doesn’t say that the juror was misinformed about what the alternative to the death penalty was because of any exposure to extraneous evidence. He just asserts that the juror didn’t understand the jury instructions which outlined what the alternatives to the death penalty were.
The Louisiana Supreme Court held that Dressner has now exhausted his right to state collateral review. So here, relative to the juror misconduct issue, there are 2 important points:
- The defendant has not overcome the presumption that the jury followed the court’s instructions in the jury instructions. As such, the instructions informed them about the alternative to the death penalty. The presumption is that they understood these instructions, considered the available options in the penalty phase and voted for the death penalty.
- The basis for the juror misconduct claim, that the juror had an incorrect belief about the alternative to the death penalty, focuses on the juror’s mental processes and beliefs and any evidence in this category is barred under both federal and state evidentiary rules – here specifically, it was barred under the Louisiana Shield Law.
Now I also want to point out a couple of important strategic steps here:
First, on the issue of the affidavit, if you are encountered with a juror affidavit which discusses a juror’s beliefs, emotions or thought processes during deliberations, make sure that you bring a motion to strike that affidavit and get a ruling. Remember, when we are dealing with the abuse of discretion standard of review, we have to focus on whether the trial court’s rulings were or were not an abuse of its discretion. Also remember that you can move to strike a portion of a juror affidavit if it discusses these matters. But, get the ruling on the record.
Now, on the other side, if you are trying to support your juror misconduct claim and your only basis is a juror’s incorrect beliefs or misunderstandings about the law – just know that you are not going to succeed. But, if the facts demonstrate that the juror’s incorrect understanding of the law came from an outside source – let’s say maybe they did internet research on the alternatives to the death penalty and understood something that was contrary to the law as explained in the jury instructions – if something like that happened, then you have a chance. If you link the juror’s incorrect belief or misunderstanding about the law to the juror’s exposure to extraneous evidence, you can at least argue that the juror affidavit should be admissible under the rule and considered in your juror misconduct claim.
And finally, although the opinion doesn’t discuss it, we see it a lot in these death penalty cases where a juror has a change of heart or change of mind or some sort of remorse about the verdict, so just keep that in mind too when reviewing a juror’s affidavit. There are a lot of cases out there that discuss that those types of issues as well.
And that’s it for our analysis of the juror misconduct issues in this case. If you like what you hear and want more, please subscribe to our podcast and leave us a review.
And also check out our latest CLE on juror misconduct called: “Facebook & Today’s Juror: 2017’s 10 Biggest Juror Misconduct Events,” and use the code “podcast25”, that’s podcast two-five, for $25 off our regular CLE price exclusively for our podcast listeners. This CLE is accredited and/or approved for 1.5 general credit hours in 30 states and I’ll put the link to the registration page in our episode notes.
That’s it for today. This is Nilgün Zahour from SM JUROR, and remember, don’t let juror misconduct taint your verdict. See you next time.
Remember to use the coupon code “podcast25”, exclusively for our podcast listeners, for $25 off our CLE entitled, “Facebook & Today’s Juror: 2017’s 10 Biggest Juror Misconduct Events” which has been accredited & approved for 1.5 general CLE credit hours in 30 states. Click here to register for our CLE.
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