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Unto The Sons Of Anarchy: Jurors Must Follow The Law As Instructed By The Trial Court Or Face Expulsion


criminal appeals lawyer, jury instructions, Federal rules of criminal procedure 23(b)(3), jury misconduct

U.S v. Ellis

United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

13-10184

Decided on: September 3, 2014

Federal Rules Of Criminal Procedure 23(b)(3) Allows 11 Jurors To Decide A Criminal Case

Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer

Issue: Whether the District Court abused its discretion where the court replaced one juror during voir dire and whether the court committed an abuse of discretion under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 23(b)(3), which allows a court to remove and replace a seated juror before verdict, when it excused a sitting juror during deliberations for failure to follow the court’s instructions on the law.

Summary: In a case of life imitating art imitating life, Godwin was inspired by the dictional motorcycle gang in Sons of Anarchy, itself modeled on the real life Hells angels, to form his own band of brigands called the Guardians. Under his leadership, tge Guardians terrorizes the citizens of Jacksonville, Florida, through a steady onslaught of home invasion robberies, armed bank robberies, and other crimes.

Defendant was convicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for racketeering, and conspiracy to commit racketeering. At jury selection, a member of the jury explained that she would be unable to serve on the jury because she couldn’t care for her child and the District Court replaced her with an alternate.

During deliberations, Juror 10 refused to follow the court’s instructions, which led him to be excused. On Appeal, Defendant contends that the District Court abused its discretion under FRCP 23(b)(3) in excusing two members of his jury. The Court of Appeals affirmed stating that a District Court may excuse a juror for good cause, which includes that juror’s refusal to apply the law or to follow the court’s instructions, as well as replace any jurors who are unable to perform or who are disqualified from performing their duties

See Also: Self-Defense: Charge To The Jury Requires Sufficient Evidence  

Holding: The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the District Court did not abuse its discretion when it removed a juror who stated she would be distracted by her concern for her child and would not give the case her full attention..

A District Court may remove and replace a seated juror before deliberations begin whenever facts arise that cast doubt on that juror’s ability to perform her duties.

The decision to remove a juror and replace him with an alternate is entrusted to the sound discretion of the trial judge whenever facts are presented which convince the trial judge that the juror’s ability to perform his duties as a juror is impaired. See Fed R. Crim. P. 24(c).

The Eleventh Circuit also held that the District Court did not err when it excused a member of the jury when that juror refused to follow the court’s instructions.

A trial Judge may excuse a juror for good cause, which includes that juror’s refusal to apply the law of to follow the court’s instructions.

Facts: Defendant Godwin was convicted for racketeering, and conspiracy to commit racketeering. At the beginning of the selection of his jury, the court notified the potential jurors that the trial was expected to four-and-a-half weeks. One of the jurors explained that there would be an issue because she was the primary care giver for her son. The District Court found that she would be affected by her opposition to being away from her child and replaced her with an alternate.

During deliberations, the Judge instructed the jury of a substantive RICO offense and of conspiracy to violate RICO. The Judge stated that the jurors were bound to follow the law as the Judge explained, even if they did not agree with the law. A Juror sent out a note stating that Juror 10 refused to follow the court’s legal instruction and to apply those instructions to the evidence.

Nine of the eleven jurors explained that Juror 10 said that he doesn’t agree with the law and didn’t care what the law said. The Government then moved to excuse Juror 10 under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 23(b)(3). On Appeal, Defendant challenges the District Court’s decisions to excuse both jurors. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision.

Legal Analysis: The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that they review a District Court’s decision to excuse a juror only for an abuse of discretion. United States v. Register, 182 F.3d 820, 839-40 11th Cir. 1999. In this case, Defendant contends that the District Court erred in excusing two members of his jury.

First, he argued statements made from the juror’s father to the judge about how distressed she was about having to serve on the jury and not being able to take care of her fourteen-month-old son during the duration of the trial.

The Eleventh Circuit held that a District court may remove and replace a seated juror before deliberations begin whenever facts arise that cast doubt on that juror’s ability to perform her duties. United States v. Smith, 918 F.2d 1501, 1512 11th Cir. 1990. Here, when the court convened the next morning the Judge immediately notified the parties of the phone call and the father’s statements. After being notified of the father’s statements, Defendant had an opportunity to address them and object to the court’s consideration of them, but he did not.

The Eleventh Circuit held that the District Court did not solicit the father’s statements, it brought them to the parties’ attention, and neither side objected to the court considering those statements. Under those circumstances the court did not err or abuse its discretion in considering the father’s statements. United States v. Puche, 350 F.3d 1137, 1152053 11th Cir. 2003. The District court justifiably found that the juror would be affected by her opposition to being away from her child and would be unable or unwilling to focus on the trial. Not only was the District Court’s decision well within its direction, but the Defendant has also failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by the removal of the juror.

The Eleventh Circuit held that the decision to remove a juror and replace him with an alternate is entrusted to the sound discretion of the trial judge whenever facts are presented which convince the trial judge that the juror’s ability to perform his duties as a juror is impaired. The court may replace any jurors who are unable to perform or who are disqualified from performing their duties. The Eleventh Circuit held that they will not disturb a District Court’s decision to remove a juror before deliberations absent a showing of bias or prejudice, which includes removal without factual support, or for a legally irrelevant reason. United States v. Fajardo, 787 F.2d 1523, 1525 11th Cir. 1986.

Once deliberations have begun, a District Court may excuse a juror for good cause, which includes that juror’s refusal to apply the law or to follow the court’s instructions, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 23(b)(3).

      Defendant next argues that the District Court abused its discretion in removing Juror 10(the second juror) after the jury began its deliberations. He argues that the answers that the jurors gave about Juror 10’s behavior during the deliberations failed to establish that he was refusing to follow the court’s instructions on the law, and instead showed that he was a juror in the minority who was doing his best to interpret those instructions.

The Eleventh Circuit held that the District Court explicitly applied the correct standard, which was whether there was a substantial possibility that the juror who was removed was merely espousing the view that there was insufficient evidence to convict instead of refusing to follow the court’s instructions.

Because the District court did that, the only question is whether it clearly erred in finding that the juror was refusing to follow the instructions.

The Eleventh Circuit held that it is seldom easy to establish clear error. It is especially difficult to do so in this situation where the District Court was on the scene, viewed the jurors as they described the problem, and therefore was uniquely situated to make the credibility determinations that must be made whenever a juror’s motivations and intentions are at issue.

In conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit held that Defendant’s jury submitted two notes to the District Court, both of which stated that one juror did not agree with the court’s instructions on the law. The District Court specifically found that the statements of every juror but Juror 10 were unequivocal, specific, consistent and credible, that Juror 10 refused to follow the court’s instructions, and that there no substantial possibility that Juror 10 was basing his disagreement or his decision on the sufficiency of the evidence. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.


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