Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York murder case involving the defendant’s challenge to the trial court’s substitution of a member of the jury. Specifically, the defendant claimed that the court failed to follow the proper procedure when determining the sitting juror’s unavailability.
The Facts of the Case
According to the court’s opinion, the defendant called 911 stating that he shot his brother. The defendant’s brother later died from his injuries, and the defendant was charged with murder and related charges.
The case proceeded to trial, and on the ninth day of trial, one of the jurors was absent. The juror explained that she had an important medical appointment for a family member. The court did not officially conduct a hearing into the juror’s absence and, without formally stating that the court was ordering the substitution, the court proceeded with an alternate juror. The court explained that it believed the juror mentioned the appointment during jury selection, however, that turned out not to be the case.
The defendant objected, and eventually asked for a mistrial. The court denied the defendant’s motion, and the jury later convicted the defendant. The court sentenced him to 17 years to life. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly substituted the alternate juror without giving the defendant prior notice or an opportunity to be heard on the issue.
The Appellate Court’s Opinion
On appeal, the court reversed the defendant’s conviction, agreeing that the lower court failed to follow the proper procedure when allowing the alternate juror to sit in the absent juror’s place. The court explained that, before a judge can substitute a juror, the court must “make a reasonably thorough inquiry regarding the juror’s absence and attempt to ascertain when such juror will be appearing in court.”
The appellate court noted that the trial court initially based its decision on incorrect information – that the unavailable juror brought her potential absence to the court’s attention. In addition, the court failed to make a reasonably thorough inquiry regarding the juror’s absence, and instead just informally substituted the alternate juror without providing the defendant an opportunity to be heard. Because the trial court failed to follow the necessary procedures, the appellate court reversed the defendant’s murder conviction.
This case is a good example of how important it is that a court precisely follows all procedural court rules. An experienced attorney will be prepared to raise all procedural issues to the court, preserving any appellate issues.
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