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Juror’s comment showed she was tired, not biased

Top court rejects challenge to murder conviction

A man convicted of murder is not entitled to a new trial despite a deliberating juror’s statement that she would be willing to change her vote if it meant getting home sooner.

In a 4-3 split, the Court of Appeals said the trial judge reasonably concluded the juror’s comment resulted from fatigue rather than impermissible bias against Troy Sherman Nash.

Nash said the trial judge should have at least questioned the juror before denying his motion for a mistrial after the comment came to light.

But the juror’s desire to get home early, while “troublesome on its face,” did not “constitute the type of excessive or egregious misconduct that raises a presumption of prejudice,” the high court held.

The jury was deliberating on Sept. 2, 2011 — the Friday before Labor Day — when the foreman reported the comment in a note to the trial judge, Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Crystal D. Mittelstaedt.

The jury had deliberated for more than two hours at that point, after a four-day trial.

Upon receiving the note, Mittelstaedt excused the jurors for the long weekend with the admonition that their verdict be based “upon what has been presented here during the course of the trial,” the high court noted in its opinion.

The jury returned on Tuesday, Sept. 6. That same day, the defense moved for a mistrial, which Mittelstaedt denied.

After about an hour of further deliberations, the jury found Nash guilty of first-degree murder for stabbing Vanessa Riddick to death in August 2007.

Mittelstaedt sentenced Nash to life in prison.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction in an unreported opinion on April 4, 2013.

Nash then appealed to the high court, arguing in vain that Mittelstaedt should have questioned the juror before rejecting the request that she declare a mistrial.

The foreman’s note merely “posed a concern of one member of the jury about another juror’s purported statement, which the trial judge addressed by recessing for the long weekend, based on her interpretation that the subject juror’s assumed statement was the result of exhaustion or frustration, as opposed to confusion about the applicable law or the rules regarding how the jurors were required to discharge their duties,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote for the majority on Friday.

Harrell distinguished the juror’s personal statement, as relayed by the foreman, from conduct in which a juror has improperly performed independent research or spoken to a party in the case. Such acts implicate the integrity of the deliberations and would require questioning by the judge, he wrote.

“A statement made by a single juror, which did not concern the evidence or any of the witnesses, does not have the same likelihood of poisoning the well of deliberations as the type of juror contact with witnesses, parties to the case, or third parties,” Harrell wrote.

“Nor is such a statement likely to have as harmful an effect on deliberations as the type of independent investigation and resulting introduction of prejudicial ‘outside’ evidence” as has occurred in other cases, he added.

Real life vs. the movies

Judge Robert N. McDonald dissented, saying Mittelstaedt should have questioned the juror to determine whether the desire to go home would prevent a fair and impartial verdict.

“We like to think that our juries approach their task like the one in ‘Twelve Angry Men’ ultimately did — where an earnest examination of the evidence prevails over the desire for an early exit from a civic obligation, overcomes whatever prejudices and predispositions we individually bring to the jury room and enables a jury to work toward a consensus that is a just result,” McDonald wrote.

“Perhaps that is how this jury worked, and I hope that is true,” he added. “But, in my view, when a jury foreman reports that one of the jurors is ready to concede his or her vote for reasons unrelated to the evidence or the law, a trial judge should do more than simply hope that it is not true.”

Criminal-procedure professor Byron L. Warnken said Mittelstaedt had no clear choice.

Questioning a juror might uncover if he or she has a personal bias, but the process of inquiry might be perceived by the jury as judicial pressure, said Warnken, who teaches at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

“Before deciding that there is no abuse of discretion the trial judge should probably have been required to voir dire that juror rather than make assumptions,” Warnken said.

“[But] we want to make sure that the judge is not inadvertently pressuring the jury to do something,” he added. “It’s a close enough question that it’s hard to find fault with the Court of Appeals.”

Harrell was joined in his opinion by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Clayton Greene Jr. and Shirley M. Watts.

Judges Lynne A. Battaglia and Sally D. Adkins joined McDonald’s dissent.

HARRELL

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Troy Sherman Nash v. State of Maryland, CA, No. 60, Sept. Term 2013. Reported. Opinion by Harrell, J. Dissenting opinion by McDonald, J. Argued March 6, 2014. Filed June 20, 2014.

Issue:

Did the judge err in denying defense’s mistrial motion without questioning juror for potential bias?

Holding:

No; the trial judge had discretion to find no bias without having questioned the juror.

Counsel:

Katherine P. Rasin for petitioner; Cathleen C. Brockmeyer for respondent.

RecordFax #14-0620-20 (52 pages)