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D.C. Court: Judges Can Investigate Juror Misconduct, Racial Bias

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By Kelly Cheung on May 22, 2013 4:05 PM

Should what goes on in the jury room stay in the jury room? Not always, according to a recent D.C. Court of Appeals opinion on post-verdict challenges of juror misconduct. The court has carved out an exception to the No-Impeachment Rule when there is an allegation of racial or ethnic bias.

The court’s decision allowing judges to investigate jurors is narrow; only when substantial allegations of racial or ethic bias affect a defendant’s constitutional rights. In this case, the judge did not err in inquiring about jurors after a verdict was made. There was a valid question as to whether the constitutional right of the defendant was in jeopardy based on an allegation of racial or ethnic bias of one juror.

A juror accused another of juror misconduct in United States v. Kittle. The juror gave a letter to the trial judge stating that she wished the deliberations didn't take so long and discussed dealing with jurors that felt all "blacks are guilty regardless."

Upon finding this out, Kittle's attorney asked for a mistrial or alternatively, to have the court investigate the claim. However, the trial judge refused, recognizing the no-impeachment rules against post-verdict investigations of jury misconduct. Kittle appealed, arguing the trial judge should have investigated the allegation.

Before this case, case law generally prohibited judges from questioning the jurors about their internal thought process. It is only permissible if they inquire about "extraneous" influences.

Here, the court's rationale was that there is a difference between racial or ethnic bias and other types of jury misconduct. The seriousness of such claims and their potential effect on the defendant's constitutional rights far outweighs the importance of just letting the jurors be.

What was in jeopardy in Kittle's case was his constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial. This includes the right to a jury without a racial or ethnic bias.

It is important to note what this case does not stand for. Judges cannot freely question all allegations of jury misconduct. It is also at the trial judge's discretion to investigate. It must be those special circumstances where the defendant's constitutional right is at stake.

Unfortunately, this ruling does not help Kittle in his case. Although there was no full-blown investigation of the juror in question, the trial judge did weigh several considerations and come to the conclusion there was no special circumstance in this case requiring more.

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