Jur-E Bulletin: January 19, 2018


Implied Juror Bias

The United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit issued an opinion in Uranga v. Texas on January 12, 2018. Mr. Uranga was tried by a jury in a Texas state court for a felony drug offense and was sentenced by the jury to life imprisonment as a habitual felony offender. (Texas is one of a handful of states that uses jury sentencing). During the penalty phase of the case, the prosecution presented evidence of prior convictions and several unadjudicated offenses. One of these unadjudicated offenses involved a video footage of a police car chase in which the defendant damaged a lawn. Upon seeing the video, one of the jurors realized it was his lawn that was damaged and notified the court of this fact. Until the trial, he was unaware of the identity of the person that damaged his lawn.

The trial judge questioned the juror outside the presence of the remaining jurors. The juror assured the court that he court remain fair and impartial. However, the defense moved for a mistrial which was denied. The case reached the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit as a habeas corpus proceeding.* The appeals court used the doctrine of “implied juror bias” to analyze this case. They stated that “implied bias is an objective legal judgment made as a matter of law and is not controlled by sincere and credible assurances by the juror that he can be fair.” However, they also cautioned that it is only in “extreme situations” that implied juror bias may be found. However, the Fifth Circuit determined that “this case presents one of those ‘extreme situations’ in which we are justified in finding a violation of the Sixth Amendment based on implied juror bias." The sentencing portion of the trial was reversed and remanded.

*The procedural history of this case is complex, please refer to the actual case for a more complete description. 

Unanimous Jury Ballot Measure in Oregon

The Albany Democrat-Herald published an editorial on January 15, 2018 titled, Unanimous Jury Ballot Measure Has Merit. It describes an initiative by the Oregon District Attorneys Association to abolish the use of non-unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases. Oregon is one of two states that currently allows for this practice. The practice began in 1934 when the Oregon constitution was amended to allow 10-2 verdicts to be sufficient to convict in most felony cases. Although there is some uncertainty as to the motivation behind the change to non-unanimous verdicts, there is some evidence that is was designed mute the votes of immigrants and minorities. Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill stated  in response to a question regarding his view of the ballot measure, "We stand emphatic and firm in our shared belief that racism, bias, prejudice and discrimination simply cannot play a role in a criminal justice system." He obviously supports the ballot measure. 

Managing Non-Citizens Summoned for Jury Service 

A regular reader would like to know what procedures other jurisdictions use to remove non-citizens who are summoned to jury service and are not statutorily qualified to serve.  Does your jurisdiction ask them to sign an attestation that they are not U.S. citizens, to provide a green card or accept their verbal representation?  What assurance, if any, do you provide this community that their responses will be used solely for the purposes of the jury selection process?  Do you have any other recommendations to encourage non-citizens to respond to summonses rather than ignoring them?  Please respond with any information you may have to Greg Hurley at ghurley@ncsc.org and your responses will be forwarded.  

Juror Disinclination Regarding a False Confession Theory

The District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida, Fourth District rendered an opinion in Rentas v. State on January 10, 2018.  Mr. Rentas was charged with a variety of felony sex offenses that allegedly occurred with a child.  The state admitted a confession which the defense claimed was a false confession.  During voir dire, Juror 1-5 indicated that he did not believe a person would falsely confess to committing such a serious offense.  Juror 3-7 made the following statement:

Well, it-- it’s kind of hard for me to believe that someone would admit guilt to a crime of this nature if they were in fact innocent.  I mean very unreasonable. I mean anything’s possible of course. But something of this nature would just be very unreasonable for someone to admit guilt to.

Both jurors stated that they could be fair and impartial.  The defense moved to remove the two jurors for cause based on their views of false confessions.  The State argued “that while a prospective juror may find such a defense ‘hard to believe,’ they are permitted to have whatever beliefs they want so long as they are able to keep an open mind and follow the evidence.”  The trial court agreed with the state and denied the motions to remove the jurors.  After the defense had exhausted all of its peremptory challenges, it requested more and that request was denied. 

The District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida, Fourth District found that even though the jurors had unequivocally stated they would be fair and impartial, their prior statements suggest that they have a bias and the motions to remove them for cause should have been granted.  The case was reversed and remanded. 

Tharpe v. Sellers

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Tharpe v. Sellers on January 8, 2018. Mr. Tharpe was convicted of murder in a Georgia state court and sentenced to death. Seven years after the verdict, Mr. Tharpe’s lawyers obtained an affidavit from a juror in the case, Barney Gattie. The opinion contains excerpts of the affidavit which make it clear that Gattie was a racist and that his vote in the case was racially motivated, although he later produced a second affidavit in which he suggests that his vote for the death sentence was based on the facts of the crime.

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court as an appeal to the denial of a certificate of appealability. It was reversed and remanded for the lower courts to reconsider whether Tharpe is entitled to a certificate of appealability. The interesting aspect of this case from a “jury perspective” is that voir dire in the trial of this case was totally ineffective at weeding out a juror with an extreme bias. 

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January 19, 2018

Jur-E Bulletin is a publication of the Center for Jury Studies.

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