Episode 24: Exploring the relationship between the juror and the trial witness

SM JUROR Podcast #24: Vasquez Juarez v. State, No. 2452, SEPT.TERM,2017, 2019 WL 4187473 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Sept. 3, 2019).

Vasquez Juarez v. State, No. 2452, SEPT.TERM,2017, 2019 WL 4187473 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Sept. 3, 2019).

Summary: In Episode #24 of the SM JUROR Podcast, Juror Misconduct Law in Review, Attorney Nilgün Aykent Zahour analyzes the juror misconduct issues in Vasquez Juarez v. State, No. 2452, SEPT.TERM,2017, 2019 WL 4187473 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Sept. 3, 2019). Issue: In denying defendant’s motion for mistrial, did the trial court abuse its discretion in refusing to voir dire a juror who may have known a trial witness?

Hi everyone!  This is Nilgün Zahour from SM JUROR and in Episode 24 of our podcast, Juror Misconduct Law in Review, we’re going to examine the juror misconduct issues in the case of Vasquez Juarez v. State, which is out of Maryland.  This case was decided on September 3, 2019 and I’ll be sure to put the full citation of the case in our episode notes. 

Now in this episode, we’re going to tackle issues related to juror bias, specifically the relationship between a juror and a trial witness and what the attorney needs to do when faced with such a situation.

In this first-degree murder conviction case, Estifanos Asfaw, a Northwestern University college student, was running along a trail when he discovered the brutally stabbed body of Catherine Alvarado.  He called 9-1-1 and led responding police officers to the body.

During voir dire, the Court read the names of the trial witnesses, including Mr. Asfaw, to the prospective jurors and asked them whether they knew anyone on the list.  One juror answered affirmatively, was questioned by the Court and then ultimately excused. The Court then continued with general voir dire until a jury was empaneled.

During the State’s opening statements, defense counsel interjected that one of the jurors taught at Northwestern and asked the Court to individually voir dire that juror to determine whether there was any potential student-teacher relationship or connection with the State’s witness, Mr. Asfaw. The Court continued the proceeding without any individualized voir dire. During the testimony of the responding police officer, defense counsel repeated the request to voir dire the juror, but the Court denied it.  Defense counsel then moved for a mistrial, which was also denied.

Now, do you think there was a presumption of prejudice due to the fact that a juror taught at Northwestern and the State’s witness was a Northwestern student?  Northwestern University is looked in Evanston, Illinois and this murder took place in Maryland.

If you answered yes, under this fact pattern you are incorrect. So, let’s examine the facts carefully to illustrate why there was no presumption of prejudice establishing any kind of juror bias.

First, we’re dealing with the Record on Appeal and surprisingly, the identity of the juror whom defense counsel said taught at Northwestern, is unknown.  When we’re dealing with issue preservation, let’s get this critical piece of evidence into the record.

Now defense counsel wanted the Court to conduct individualized voir dire of the juror but that request was denied, so we want to analyze whether the Court’s denial of that request was an abuse of discretion.

First, is direct questioning of a juror always required?  The answer is no. There are two types of cases “in which the court is required to voir dire a jury panel prior to denying a motion for a mistrial:

(1) cases involving egregious juror and witness misconduct, which results in a presumption of prejudice; and (2) cases where the judge ‘lacked sufficient information to determine whether the incident was prejudicial.’”

Under this fact pattern, neither situation arose so the Court was not required to conduct individualized voir dire.  There was no evidence of egregious juror or witness misconduct and there was no evidence showing that the judge lacked sufficient information about any incident of juror misconduct.

If we look at the scenario, the opinion tells us that the Court read the names of the trial witnesses to the jury pool and asked if anyone recognized a name.  One juror did recognize someone and was eventually excused after direct questioning.  After that, general voir dire continued until a jury was empaneled.

Now during jury selection, the attorneys have some basic information about the jurors – their names and places of employment and possibly a little bit more information depending on the jurisdiction, venue or judge. Sometimes, if a juror questionnaire is used, the attorneys may have specific information which could warrant further questioning of a potential juror or even necessitate the use of a peremptory challenge or a challenge for cause.

In this instance, the jury was empaneled and the State started its opening statement.  At that time, defense counsel interjected that a juror taught at Northwestern and wanted that juror to be directly questioned. Now we don’t know the source of defense counsel’s information that the juror taught at Northwestern, but we can use an educated guess that this information probably came from the juror’s identification card where some basic information is disclosed.  It’s also reasonable to assume that the information did not come from the State’s witness, who was a Northwestern student, because that source would be critical and would have been developed by defense counsel on appeal. 

Now, the issue here can be framed in terms of timing and waiver.  If defense counsel knew the juror taught at Northwestern, why didn’t the attorney ask the juror about this during voir dire?  Defense counsel already accepted the panel with this Northwestern juror on it so defense counsel cannot backtrack and now ask that the juror be directly questioned to explore any potentially biased relationship.

Second, even if this unidentified juror did teach at Northwestern, we cannot make the giant leap that the juror was biased against the defendant because the State’s witness was a Northwestern University student.

So, let’s break this down. Here are some questions defense counsel should have asked during voir dire.

And that, actually, brings me to another point.  The opinion does not disclose the specifics of what occurred during voir dire.  Remember, if you are moving for a mistrial based on juror misconduct involving whether a juror was biased or had a relationship with a witness, it would be important to have a court reporter present during voir dire, who will transcribe the proceedings, to help you meet your burden of proof on any potential juror bias based on how questions were answered at voir dire. This opinion does not provide us with any of that information.

Obviously, examination of the record would have told us the juror’s name. This seems rather basic, but it was missing in this case.  Maybe Mr. Asfaw, the Northwestern University student, would have recognized the juror by name.  Here, we will never know.

Second, we would want to specifically ask, and get the answer on the record, if the juror knew the State’s witness by name.  We would also want to ask what subjects the juror taught.  This is important because if the juror taught biology, for example, but the Northwestern student was an English major, then it would be highly unlikely that they even knew each other, much less had any type of relationship that would give rise to potential juror bias. This is also important because if a juror is merely acquainted with a witness, the acquaintance itself is insufficient to establish any kind of bias.

So when we look back at the issue, we can see that there was no evidence of any student-teacher relationship to give rise to a presumption of prejudice or any potential juror bias. The defendant was not denied the opportunity to develop this evidence when defense counsel asked that the juror be directly questioned.  The request was too late, as this probing should have been done during voir dire before the jury was empaneled.  Remember, both parties knew the State’s witness was a Northwestern University student.  As such, they could have easily asked a group question to the jury pool on whether anyone worked at Northwestern or had a connection with Northwestern, and then proceed accordingly.

Additionally, the opinion tells us that Ms. Asfaw, the Northwestern student, was not a key primary witness for the State. True, he was the individual who found the murder victim, but he was not an eyewitness to the murder and his testimony did not address any issues related to motive. This is an important point to consider because if the witness’s testimony is not significant, then the likelihood of a potential bias resulting from a juror being acquainted with the witness is less likely.  Keep that in mind.

And that’s it for today’s 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” for $25 off our regular CLE price exclusively for our podcast listeners.  This CLE is accredited/approved for 1.5 general credit hours in multiple 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.

Don’t let juror misconduct taint your verdict…