State v. Arndt, 426 P.3d 804 (Wash. Ct. App. 2018).
Summary: Nilgün Aykent Zahour analyzes the juror misconduct issues in the case of State v. Arndt, 426 P.3d 804 (Wash. Ct. App. 2018). The issues we address are: Internet research on Google and Wikipedia to find a definition of premeditation, the presumption of prejudice and whether that presumption can be overcome or rebutted, credibility determinations at an evidentiary hearing, and a working definition of the abuse of discretion standard of review.
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 we’re going to be looking at the case of State v. Arndt, which is out of Washington. The issues we’re going to discuss are internet research on Google and Wikipedia to find a definition of premeditation, the presumption of prejudice and whether that presumption can be overcome or rebutted, credibility determinations at an evidentiary hearing, and a working definition of the abuse of discretion standard of review. Glad you’re listening because the only evidence you want the jury to hear is in the courtroom. Now’s let’s take a look at State v. Arndt.
Hi everyone. This is Nilgün Zahour from SM JUROR, and in today’s podcast, we’re going to be looking at the juror misconduct issues in the case of State v. Arndt, which is out of Washington.
This case was decided on September 25, 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, Shelly Arndt was convicted of numerous crimes, including premeditated murder in the first degree and arson in the first degree. She appealed the trial court’s denial of her motion for a new trial based on juror misconduct and wanted a reversal of her murder conviction. The Washington Court of Appeals found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying her motion for new trial, and affirmed her conviction.
Now the way juror misconduct is discovered in some cases always intrigues me. Here, six months after the verdict, Juror 2 approached a woman, whom she did not know was the sister of the defendant’s attorney and told her she was a juror on the Arndt trial and that she struggled with understanding the term, premeditation, and what it meant and so she looked it up on the internet. Now let’s just stop right there. How is it that this juror finds this woman who just happens to be the defendant’s attorney’s sister? We don’t know, but it is intriguing for sure. Nonetheless, the other woman tells her brother, who’s the defendant’s trial attorney, who then sent his investigator, Harris, to talk to the juror.
Juror 2 told Harris that she did internet research on the word, premeditation, and gave the investigator additional information, including possible websites she viewed. Now, I hope you heard me say the word, “possible,” as in possible websites she may have viewed, because this becomes an important issue. As a side note, Juror 2 was also interviewed by the State’s investigator.
The defendant moved for a new trial based on juror misconduct and the trial court held an evidentiary hearing where Juror 2 and Harris, the investigator, both testified.
So the relevant issues here are: Did Juror 2 commit juror misconduct when she did internet research on the term premeditation, and if so, did her research affect her verdict, such that the defendant was prejudiced and therefore entitled to a new trial? Now, another way of phrasing the second issue is this: Did Juror 2 rely on the internet definitions of premeditation, which were not correct statements of the law as described in the jury instructions, such that she voted that the defendant was guilty?
Now the standard of review for how a trial court deals with a juror misconduct issue and how it rules on a motion for new trial based on juror misconduct is the abuse of discretion standard of review. This opinion gave us a good working definition of an abuse of discretion. It said:
“A trial court ‘abuses its discretion when it acts on untenable grounds or its ruling is manifestly unreasonable. A ‘decision is based ‘on untenable grounds’ or made ‘for untenable reasons’ if it rests on facts unsupported in the record or was reached by applying the wrong legal standard.’ A ‘decision is ‘manifestly unreasonable’ if the court, despite applying the correct legal standard to the supported facts, adopts a view ‘that no reasonable person would take,’ and arrives at a decision ‘outside the range of acceptable choices.’”
So here, we’re going to be looking at the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law relative to its denial of defendant’s motion for new trial based on juror misconduct and whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying that motion.
At the evidentiary hearing, Juror 2 testified that she had researched the term “premeditation” and had found different websites, but did not remember whether she had viewed any of the specific sites she had showed Harris when he earlier interviewed her. She testified she believed the definition was “from Wikipedia or whatever that does when you Google – and that’s the definition.” She looked at a couple of different definitions and the key thing that struck her about the internet definitions of premeditation was the word “short” or the phrase, “however short” and that helped her understand. She also testified that she didn’t share her research with any other juror.
After the evidentiary hearing, the trial court prepared a written memorandum opinion with findings of fact and conclusions of law. It found that Juror 2 performed internet research at home on the definition of premeditation, but did not share that research with other jurors. The trial court could not determine the exact websites that Juror 2 looked at, but noted that Juror 2 consistently stated that the internet definitions of premeditation that she viewed contained the words “short” or “however short.” The trial court also found Juror 2’s in court testimony to be more reliable than her out of court statements that were made to both investigators.
The trial court then found that Juror 2 committed juror misconduct which created a presumption of prejudice such that the defendant was entitled to a new trial. Now remember, the analysis is not over yet. What we’re dealing with is a presumption of prejudice which can or cannot be rebutted. The issue becomes did Juror 2’s internet research on the definition of premeditation contribute to the verdict? If the answer is yes, defendant gets a new trial. If the answer is no, the conviction stands.
So let’s look at the evidence here. As it’s stated in the court opinion, the trial court was presented with some known research results of Juror 2’s internet research, and then there’s this question that she went on some other websites, but she didn’t know exactly what websites she went to. So nobody knows, not even the juror. So the trial court can only deal with what it’s got in front of it. It’s got some internet definitions, which are not identified for the readers of the opinion, but referenced as possibly from Wikipedia, and it’s got Juror 2’s testimony about her picking up on the language used in the definition of “short or however short.”
Now let’s take a look at Washington state’s legal definition of premeditation and then also the jury instruction on premeditation that was given to the jury in the Arndt case: “Washington law defines ‘premeditation’ as ‘the deliberate formation of and reflection upon the intent to take a human life’ and [it] involves ‘the mental process of … deliberation, reflection, weighing or reasoning for a period of time, however short.’ ‘Premeditation must involve ‘more than a moment in point of time.’”
The trial court’s instructions to the jury in this case stated:
“Premeditated means thought over beforehand. When a person, after any deliberation, forms an intent to take human life, the killing may follow immediately after the formation of the settled purpose and it will still be premeditated. Premeditation must involve more than a moment in point of time. The law requires some time, however long or short, in which a design to kill is deliberately formed.”
The trial court compared Juror 2’s testimony of what affected her about the internet definitions with the actual jury instruction on premeditation and found, that in substance, the definitions were indistinguishable, and that the internet definitions were consistent with the law. As such, the trial court was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Juror 2’s research could not have affected the verdict and denied the defendant’s motion for new trial.
Now the Washington Court of Appeals held that:
Although the exact websites Juror 2 visited and the precise definitions she viewed were unknown, the part of those definitions that had an impression on her and affected her verdict were the word “short” and phrase “however short.” As the trial court ruled, these definitions “were indistinguishable to the jury instruction and were consistent with the law.” This ruling is sufficient to satisfy beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict and to overcome the presumption of prejudice. It held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that Juror 2’s research did not contribute to the verdict and that it was not an abuse of discretion in denying the motion for new trial.
Now, there are some important points I want to make here.
First, a ruling on a motion for new trial based on juror misconduct cannot be made on unknowns. There’s this issue that Juror 2 went on other websites, but nobody knows what she looked at, including Juror 2. The specific websites that Juror 2 went to were not identified. So, it would be speculation to say that her internet research affected the verdict. More importantly, remember, here it’s the defendant’s burden of proof to prove juror misconduct. She proved Juror 2 went to some internet websites for the definition of premeditation, and she was questioned about that, but the critical inquiry was what affected the juror about the internet research on the definition and Juror 2 consistently testified that the word, “short,” or the phrase, “however short,” stuck in her mind. To me, this is what is critical because we need to determine how any extraneous evidence affected the juror.
Second, I want to talk about the trial court’s steps in handling this juror misconduct issue. It heard testimony from Juror 2 and Investigator Harris. Next, with regard to the internet definitions, without actual material in front of it, it determined what affected Juror 2 from those definitions. Next, the trial court stated in the record what Washington law was on premeditation and then stated what the jury instruction on premeditation stated. Again, the record now has evidence of factors which are important to the alleged juror misconduct issue.
Then comparing the jury instruction with what language affected Juror 2 in her research, the trial court found that the definitions were indistinguishable and correct statements of the law. As such, it found no prejudice and denied the motion for new trial based on juror misconduct.
Now, I also want to make a point as the case goes up on appeal, the defendant did not challenge the trial court’s findings of fact or conclusions of the law in its Memorandum when it ruled on the motion for new trial. In essence, the defendant is saying that what the trial court summarized as to the findings of fact is correct, but I just want a different ruling.
But it’s important to stress the burden of proof and when it shifts. The defendant did not demonstrate what the actual internet research was. To me, the motion could have been denied on that basis alone in some circumstances. But here, we have testimony from Juror 2 that she did do internet research and what she remembered about it. As to other websites, well, the defendant did not show what they were, and therefore she has not met her burden on showing how those other website definitions affected Juror 2’s verdict and prejudiced the defendant.
And finally, I cannot stress how important it is to get the evidence in the record. Juror 2 could not remember what sites she went to, but mentioned Wikipedia. Perhaps sitting down with her and recreating the search process might have helped, but I don’t know, this could be too burdensome or too difficult, or just not helpful. You can only deal with the facts you have on hand.
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 2-5 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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