Sunday, December 28, 2008

Let's Stop Lying to the Jury: The Case for Warning Jurors About Acquitted Conduct

Earlier this year US District Court Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of NY, one of the most reviled and respected judges on the US District Court Bench, issued a Magnum Opus of a decision. The 288 page tome has been roundly criticized by academics, politicians and prosecutors (as if there was really a difference) as a waste of judicial assets and paper. The case, United States v. Polizzi, 06 CR 22 (JBW), 2008 WL 1886006 (E.D.N.Y. April 1, 2008) held that Judge Weinstein erred when he failed to tell the jury of the potential effects of a guilty verdict in a case of possession of child pornography under the US Sentencing Guidelines. Weinstein reasoned that a jury in colonial times would have known what the potential sentences would have been, and an originalist view of the US Constitution would permit that jury to ignore the law and manipulated the verdict if it felt the law did not reflect the view of society as reflected by the jury. (Today we call that Jury Nullification See the John Peter Zanger verdict)

Many so called conservative (but I note not libertarian) bloggers were unhappy with the decision. Many think that the case will be overturned in the Second Circuit. Weinstein however makes a point however; juries do play with verdicts.

This "playfulness" comes in two forms, the aforementioned Jury Nullification (which is uncommon but works in favor of an accused) and the more common "Jury Compromise" (where the jury is otherwise deadlocked between guilt and not guilty so to appease one side or the other the jury "compromises" and convicts of something less than charged. This usually although doesn't always work against the accused), but it is still however a conviction on less than a reasonable doubt standard. An accused is owed the benefit of a doubt, not a compromise.

Now prosecutors and other "law and order" types hate Jury nullification. Yet somehow these clarions of justice find it just fine for the jury to act on less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt in convicting an accused.

On the other hand, it is wrong to mislead the jury as to facts. In other words, if a lawyer knows a fact to be untrue, he is forbidden to argue it to a jury. Hence recently a lawyer was sanctioned very severely for telling a jury that her client was "mild mannered" when in fact she had kept his actual violent behavior out of the case through a Motion in Limine.

Notwithstanding that, Judges in Federal cases mislead jurors all the time (see the Bazelton dissent) by not telling them about their power to nullify. Not telling a jury that their failure to acquit a defendant of all related conduct exposes the defendant to having the conduct for which he was acquitted used against him to enhance his sentence. In fact, the judge can use the acquitted conduct to enhance the sentence so much, that the resulting sentence can be high enough to render the acquittal a nullity. In other words, we are not telling jurors that their decision to acquit doesn't count for sh.... well you can rhyme it yourself.

We tell jurors that serving on a jury is an important and that their voice counts, but we yet through the use of acquitted conduct, we lie to them. Dress it up any way you want to, when jurors find out that defendants are sentenced to far more time in jail than they thought was appropriate for the crime the accused was actually convicted, they feel like their work didn't matter. To them it doesn't matter how we lawyer types word it, they were ignored.(My colleague and "blog as marketing" sparring partner Scott Greenfield has a great step by step explanation of how we lawyer types "explain" such nonsense)

Continued use of acquitted conduct hurts jurors even more when a jury works hard to come to a decision. If it is deadlocked, we demand it return to come to a decision. If it then decides to compromise, an activity we know they partake in, only to find that their compromise meant nothing and they were better off to just hang their verdict they feel cheated (almost as much as the accused does).

We have been at this charade for better than 20 years. Acquitted conduct is part of the USSG but the advent of the Internet makes this kind of behavior really well known. How long before jurors refuse to sit, or catch on and lose all respect for the criminal justice system altogether?

One way to handle this, is to explain to the jury, that compromise verdicts are not legal.Compromises that are based on less than every juror believing that every element of every charge was proven beyond a reasonable doubt is cheating the parties of a fair trial. Tell them that a conviction on any related count will result in the court being allowed to use the acquitted related behavior to enhance the sentence of an accused to what it would have been if the accused had been convicted of the higher charges in the first place. And let's add to the Allen charge the following: a compromise verdict is not what we seek. We would rather you return as a hung jury, than reach a compromise that left anyone unconvinced beyond a reasonable doubt that a charge was proven.

To do anything less than tell that to a jury, cheapens the work that they do, and frankly cheapens the verdict they render.
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