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Have You Agreed Upon a Verdict?

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 15, 2013 5:17 PM

Christina Marie Anzalone was accused of an odd assortment of crimes. She reportedly threatened a motel owner with a knife, threw a bagel and an open knife at another man, and broke the side mirror and radio antenna on the bagel victim's truck.

She was charged with making a criminal threat, assault with a deadly weapon, (along with allegations that she personally used a deadly weapon in both counts), and misdemeanor vandalism.

The case went to trial, and, after learning from the bailiff that the jurors had a verdict, the trial judge invited the jury back in to announce its result. But the judge never specifically asked if the jury had reached a verdict, he just stated that he had heard that they reached a verdict.

That, it turns out, was true. The jury acquitted Anzalone of the vandalism count, but convicted her on the remaining counts, including the deadly weapon allegations.

Anzalone, however, later claimed that her state constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict was violated because the court failed to ask the jury foreperson or the jurors to affirm their verdict. A Court of Appeal agreed with her that the trial court committed reversible, structural error.

California penal Code Section 1149 provides, “When the jury appear they must be asked by the Court, or Clerk, whether they have agreed upon their verdict, and if the foreman answers in the affirmative, they must, on being required, declare the same.” But that didn’t happen here. And none of the lawyers requested a poll of the jury before the jurors were dismissed.

The California Supreme Court reversed that decision, noting, “The court’s failure to follow section 1149’s requirement did not deprive defendant of her constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict. The error did not render the trial fundamentally unfair and its effect may be assessed in the context of the entire proceedings.”

As the court observed, not every violation of the right to a jury trial is a structural error worthy of reversal. In some cases, an appeal turns on whether the defendant suffered actual prejudice. That’s what happened here. Since the overlooked instruction was plainly harmless in Anzalone’s case, the Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s decision.

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