New York Appellate Court Reverses Murder Conviction Based on Failure to Excuse Unqualified Juror

A New York appellate court recently considered in an opinion whether a trial court committed a reversible error when it failed to discharge a sworn juror who, after four days of deliberations, indicated multiple times that she was unable to “separate [her] emotions from the case.” The juror also stated that she lacked the ability to decide both factual and legal issues in the matter.

The defendant was indicted for a murder in which the victim was stabbed 38 times. After the jury was excused for deliberations, the court clerk received a phone call from the juror in question, in which the juror asked what she needed to do to be excused from the trial. Next, the judge performed a substantive inquiry with the juror in the presence of the attorneys and the defendant, in which the juror repeatedly stated that she felt unable to separate her emotions from the case and that she was not fit to make certain factual and legal decisions. The exchange was lengthy and included in the court record. The defendant moved for a mistrial because the alternative jurors had already been dismissed. The judge then asked the defendant to reconsider the prosecution’s plea offer of manslaughter, finding that the juror had reached the conclusion that the defendant was guilty but was unable to carry out her duty as a juror to vote in favor of entering a guilty plea against him.

The jury then returned to deliberations and eventually returned a verdict acquitting the defendant of murder in the second degree and convicting the defendant of first-degree manslaughter. The defendant appealed, and the three-justice appellate division upheld the lower court’s decision, with one dissenting justice who granted the defendant leave to appeal the matter to the next appellate court.

On review, the appellate court first noted that the constitutional rights of criminal defendants include the right to an impartial jury. Next, the court noted that a New York statute, CPL 270.35, provides a mechanism that a court can use to dismiss a jury when it becomes obvious that he or she possesses a state of mind from which an impartial verdict cannot be rendered. The standard for removal in this instance is higher than the standard for removal of a prospective juror. In light of the lengthy exchange between the court and the juror, there was sufficient evidence to conclude that the juror was grossly unqualified to serve.

Accordingly, the appellate court concluded that, based on the unique circumstances involved in the proceeding, including the juror’s repeated indications that she was unable to complete her duty in an impartial manner, the trial court erred when it failed to discharge her based on a finding pursuant to CPL 270.35 that she was “grossly unqualified to serve” as a juror.

If you or someone you love has been involved in a criminal trial or criminal investigation, and you believe that your rights have been violated, contact the dedicated and diligent New York criminal defense lawyers at Tilem & Associates. We have assisted numerous individuals with a wide variety of defense matters, including assault and battery, gun crimes, murder, and more. To schedule your free consultation, call us now at 877-377-8666 or contact us online to get started.

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