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Media Alerts - Smith v. Swarthout
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March 6, 2014
  Smith v. Swarthout
Headline: Ninth Circuit affirms the denial of a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 habeas corpus petition alleging juror bias, misconduct, and related error in connection with a conviction of corporal injury to a spouse and making criminal threats.

Area of Law: Sixth & Fourteenth Amendments; Criminal Procedure

Issues Presented: (1) Whether the trial court's refusal to dismiss Juror No. 6, for cause, violated the defendant's constitutional rights to a fair and impartial jury. (2) Whether any alleged juror misconduct during deliberations and/or irregularities in the trial court's acceptance of final verdicts resulted in constitutional violations.

Brief Summary: During voir dire, Juror No. 6 was not asked specific questions with respect to his knowledge of the defendant, however he knew of the defendant, had heard rumors of previous criminal charges, had not read any coverage of the incident underlying the present charges, but the court ultimately determined he could be a fair and impartial juror.

Smith, the criminal defendant, charged with four counts, was found guilty two counts upon which the jury reached a verdict before Juror No. 6 performed his own research and discussed it with the jury. The court declared a mistrial as to the other two counts. . The defendant appealed, and the appellate court affirmed, the California Supreme Court summarily denied review, and the defendant then filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for federal habeas corpus, which was denied.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of the defendant's habeas corpus petition, reviewing the California Court of Appeal's decision and determining that the decision was not based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in state court proceedings with respect to the defendants claims that: (1) his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when the state court refused to discharge Juror No. 6, based on the juror's untruthfulness in voir dire, (2) his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when Juror No. 6 conducted his own research and presented it to the jury, (3) his state and federal constitutional rights to a unanimous jury were violated when the court refused to resume deliberations when Juror No. 1 mistakenly believed the court was asking about the sentence enhancement, and answered "no" when asked if he had found the defendant guilty of Counts III and IV, and (4) that his due process rights were violated when the trial court told the jury that if there was not a unanimous verdict with respect to Count III, an alternate juror would replace Juror No. 6 and deliberations would start from the beginning.

Extended Summary: Smith, a criminal defendant, was charged with four counts in California state court, as well as a sentencing enhancement.

A retired lieutenant was chosen as a Juror No. 6, and the next day the court learned that, while Juror No. 6 did not know the defendant personally, the defendant was Juror No. 6's daughter's neighbor. The court further questioned Juror No. 6 and he stated he had not read the local newspaper about the case at hand, and though he had heard rumors about the defendant's past charges, he would remain impartial. The court denied the defense counsel's motion to disqualify Juror No. 6.

Juror No. 6 conducted his own research by reading labels on medicine bottles and looking on the internet, then later claimed he had only stated he "could" look online. The jury reached a verdict with respect to Counts III and IV before Juror No. 6 discussed this information so the court accepted the verdict on Counts III and IV and declared a mistrial with respect to Counts I and II. When Juror No. 1 was polled as to his verdicts for Counts III and IV, he stated "No," however the court clarified asking if the jury's indications on the forms, that the defendant was guilty of Count III and IV, omitting the sentence enhancement for Count III, he stated "yes." The court entered verdicts of guilty for Counts III and IV, and dismissed the sentence enhancement.

The Defendant appealed, and the California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's judgment. The California Supreme Court summarily denied the petition for review. The defendant, acting pro se, then filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for habeas corpus, and the federal district court denied his petition and declined the defendant's request to issue a certificate of appealability.

The Ninth Circuit then reviewed the district court's denial of the defendant's federal habeas corpus petition. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), habeas relief can be granted if the state court proceedings adjudicating the claim on the merits "resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in state court proceedings." The Ninth Circuit then proceeded by reviewing the California Court of Appeal's decision with respect to the defendant's four claims.

First, the defendant argued that the trial court should have discharged Juror No. 6 because he willfully withheld and concealed material information, which violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments for actual bias based on a juror's untruthfulness on voir dire. However, the standard for a new trial based on a juror's failure to disclose requires a juror's failure to honestly answer a material question. The Ninth Circuit noted that here, no specific questions were asked of Juror No. 6 with respect to his knowledge of the defendant. Further, Juror No. 6 explained his failure to answer if he had read about the case in the newspaper, and the trial court found his answers credible and that he could be a fair and impartial juror. Because nothing in the record suggested that this conclusion was unreasonable, habeas relief was not available under this first contention.

Second, the defendant argued that Juror No. 6 violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments by conducting his own research, lying about his Internet research, and discussing it with the jury. When extraneous information is considered by a jury, not produced at trial, relief will be afforded to the defendant only if the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict. The Ninth Circuit, provided that the Brecht factors determine whether the introduction of extrinsic evidence is harmless, however focused on the fact that the jury had already reached a verdict on Counts III and IV when Juror No. 6 discussed his research with the jury, and the trial court had properly declared a mistrial with respect to Counts I and II.

Third, the defendant contended that his right to a unanimous jury under California Penal Code § 1163 and the federal Constitution were violated when the trial court did not order the jury to resume deliberations when Juror No. 1 stated that he did not vote to find the defendant guilty of Counts III and IV. Again, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that the California appellate court determination that the jury verdict for Counts III and IV was unanimous was not based on unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the proceedings. The California Court of Appeal determined that in responding to the trial court's question, Juror No. 1 did not understand that unlike the previous inquiries, the court was not asking about the sentence enhancement, but Juror No. 1's confusion was clarified when the trial court asked if he had voted guilty of the crimes under Counts III and IV, as Juror No. 1 then stated he had voted guilty.

Fourth, the defendant maintained that the trial court coerced the jury in violation of federal due process when the judge stated that in the absence of a unanimous verdict with respect to Count III, the court would discharge Juror No. 6, provide an alternate juror, and deliberation would begin anew. The defendant relied on Jenkins v. US for the proposition that a judgment in a criminal trial could be reversed when a trial judge stated to the jury during deliberation that the jury had to reach a decision. However, the Ninth Circuit noted that the United Stated Supreme Court instructed that its decision in Jenkins was based on the Court's supervisory power over federal courts, and not on constitutional grounds. Thus, because Jenkins did not establish precedent for a violation of a due process claim, the Ninth Circuit could not reach the issue on federal habeas corpus review.

Panel: Judges Alarcón, Tallman, Ikuta

Date of Issued Opinion: February 10, 2014

Docket Number: 2:10-cv-00730-FCD-CHS

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Joseph Chaparo

Author of Opinion: Judge Alarcón

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Ryan T. Williams

    Posted By: Ryan Williams @ 03/06/2014 01:26 PM     9th Circuit  

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