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Eliminating Jurors For Cause And Limiting Instructions To The Jury On Hearsay


People v. Harris  2012 NY Slip Op 06990

Decided by The New York Court of Appeals on October 18, 2012. 

Issues:

1)    Whether a prospective juror should have been excluded for cause when she stated that she had an opinion “slightly more in one direction than the other” with regard to the defendant’s guilt.

2)    Whether the trial court erred by not giving the jury an instruction as to hearsay evidence that was allowed into evidence.

Holding: The Court of Appeals found that the trial court should have asked follow up questions with regard to the prospective juror and because the trial court failed to do so it committed reversible error.  Furthermore, the trial court failed to give an appropriate limiting instruction with regard to the hearsay evidence that was allowed and this was also reversible errors.

Legal Analysis of First Issue:

A critical error occurred during voir dire when Supreme Court failed to elicit from a prospective juror an unequivocal assurance of her ability to be impartial after she apprised defense counsel that she had a preexisting opinion as to defendant’s guilt or innocence. At voir dire, the prospective juror acknowledged that she had followed the case in the media and that she had “an opinion slightly more in one direction than the other” concerning defendant’s guilt or innocence. When asked by defense counsel if her opinion would impact her ability to judge the case based solely on the evidence presented at trial, the prospective juror responded, “[H]ow I feel, opinion-wise, won’t be all of what I consider if I’m on the jury,” but admitted that it would be “[a] slight part” of what she would consider.

Defense counsel challenged the prospective juror for cause on the ground that she could not say that her preexisting opinion would have no effect on her ability to sit as a fair juror. The trial court denied the challenge and defendant utilized a peremptory challenge on the prospective juror. Defendant exhausted his peremptory challenges, and, therefore, preserved this issue for review.

CPL 270.20(1)(b) provides that a party may challenge a potential juror for cause if the juror “has a state of mind that is likely to preclude him from rendering an impartial verdict based upon the evidence adduced at the trial.” We have consistently held that “a prospective juror whose statements raise a serious doubt regarding the ability to be impartial must be excused unless the juror states unequivocally on the record that he or she can be fair and impartial”. “When potential jurors themselves say they question or doubt they can be fair in the case, trial judges should either elicit some unequivocal assurance of their ability to be impartial when that is appropriate, or excuse the juror when that is appropriate,” since, in most cases, “[t]he worst the court will have done . . . is to have replaced one impartial juror with another impartial juror”.

The prospective juror had a preexisting opinion concerning defendant’s guilt or innocence that cast serious doubt on her ability to render an impartial verdict. At that point, it was incumbent upon the trial court to conduct its own follow-up inquiry of the prospective juror once she stated that her preexisting opinion would play only “[a] slight part” in her consideration of the evidence. Given the absence of that inquiring, the trial court committed reversible error in denying defendant’s for-cause challenge.

Legal Analysis of Issue Two:

The trial court properly allowed in evidence Michele’s hearsay statements to Francine and Mary Jo for the limited purpose of providing context as to defendant’s reaction upon being confronted with them, it erred in failing to grant defendant’s request for a limiting instruction to the jury not to consider the statements for their truth. And then stated:

“You, the jury, may consider that testimony regarding this episode and determine what evidentiary value, if any, you choose to assign to the exchange that occurred between Mary Jo and Francine and Mr. Harris.”

The trial court’s failure to issue the appropriate limiting instruction was not harmless. In a case where there was no body or weapon, and the evidence against defendant was purely circumstantial, the danger that the jury accepted Michele’s statements for truth was real.  It failed to apprise the jury that the statements were not to be considered for their truth. This error was compounded when the prosecutor in his summation relied on those statements as direct evidence that defendant had, in fact, murdered Michele and successfully hid her body, as he purportedly threatened Michele that he would do.

 

Facts: Michele Harris was last seen on the evening of September 11, 2001. Although the Harrises were in the process of divorcing, they continued living in the same residence, albeit sleeping in separate rooms.

When a friend of Michele’s called the Harris household and was told by Ms. Thayer that Michele had not returned home the night before, the friend called Michele’s divorce attorney who, in turn, contacted state police. Defendant accompanied police to his home and consented to a search of his residence and Michele’s minivan, eventually leaving the officers at the residence and returning to work. Later that day, defendant gave police written consent to search his residence and vehicles.

Technicians discovered blood on the tiled floor of a kitchen alcove, on door moldings and surfaces leading to the garage and on the wall of the garage leading into the house. Police obtained a search warrant and, upon returning the following day, discovered blood on the garage floor as well.

According to Francine and Mary Jo, Michele told them in March 2001 that defendant threatened her by stating that he would not need a gun to kill her, that police would never find her body and that he would never be arrested.  The police investigation, spanning several years, produced neither a body nor a weapon.

In 2005, defendant was indicted on one count of murder in the second degree. A jury convicted him of that offense in the spring of 2007. The day after the verdict, a local farmhand came forward with information that he had seen Michele and a man in his mid-20s at the end of the Harris driveway at approximately 5:30 a.m. on September 12, 2001. Armed with this new information, defense counsel moved, pursuant to CPL 330.30, to set aside the verdict.  The trial court granted the motion, and its order was affirmed on appeal.

Given the high-profile nature of the case, there was significant media coverage in local newspapers and on television. Defense counsel made two change of venue motions prior to the retrial, citing “prejudicial publicity.” Each motion was denied.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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