Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Trial Court's Duty to See if the Jury was Under the Influence

State v. Chin (HSC June 25, 2015)
Background. Susan Chin was indicted with theft in the first degree, attempted theft in the first degree, and money laundering. Chin was the caretaker for the complainant, and the charges alleged that Chin took the proceeds from the sale of the complainant’s home, use of the complainant’s annuities and monies, and other benefits. Chin had a jury trial. In the middle of the trial, the prosecution’s witness, Charles Bowen, testified. The jury found Chin guilty of some, but not all charges.

Chin filed a motion for a new trial and included a declaration of Bowen. Bowen was the complainant’s neighbor who provided evidence for the prosecution. Bowen testified that he had a job with the U.S. government and had a security clearance. In the middle of the trial, a juror approached him in the bathroom. The juror did not say he was a juror, but handed him a business card. The card appeared to indicate that the person was a retired United States Navy service member. The person ended up being the foreperson on the jury.

The motion was denied and Chin was sentenced to prison for up to ten years and more than half a million dollars in restitution. Chin appealed and the ICA affirmed.

The Right to a Fair and Impartial Jury and the Williamson Two-Step. The defendant has a constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury in a criminal case. State v. Pokini, 55 Haw. 640, 641, 526 P.2d 94, 99 (1974). The defendant must first make a prima facie showing that a deprivation that “could substantially prejudice [his or her] right to a fair trial” by an impartial jury took place. State v. Williamson, 72 Haw. 97, 102, 807 P.2d 593, 596 (1991). Once made, the “rebuttable presumption of prejudice is raised.” Id. This Williamson test focuses first on the general nature of the outside influence and whether it “could” substantially prejudice the defendant. If it does, then the rebuttable presumption comes into play and the trial court is obligated to investigate.  Id.

According to the HSC, the trial judge (Judge Ahn) and the ICA wrongly applied the test. All that was required of the defendant was a prima facie showing that the outside influence “could” have substantially prejudiced the right to a fair trial. The circuit court and the ICA, however, raised the defendant’s burden to showing actual prejudice. The HSC made it very clear that once the defendant makes a showing that the outside influence could have substantially prejudiced the right to a fair trial, the trial court is obligated to investigate. That didn’t happen here.

Juror-Witness Contacts are an Outside Influence. The HSC then applied the test to Chin’s case. It focused on the nature of the alleged outside influence—the contact between a juror and a witness. Relying on precedent from the HSC and the US Supreme Court, the HSC held that “any contact or private communication, unless trivial, during trial between a juror and a witness represents an outside influence of a nature that could substantially prejudice a defendant’s right to a fair trial.” See Mattox v. United States, 146 U.S. 140, 150 (1892); Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227, 229 (1954); State v. Pokini, 55 Haw. 640, 656, 526 P.2d 94, 108 (1974); State v. Messamore, 2 Haw. App. 643, 652, 639 P.2d 413, 420 (1982) abrogated on other grounds in State v. Moore, 82 Hawaii 202, 921 P.2d 122 (1996).

In a footnote, the HSC expanded on the word “trivial.” “A court may find that brief salutations, such as good morning or good afternoon, are trivial when there are no circumstances present indicating that the communication was anything other than benign.”

The communication in this case was not trivial. The trial court had enough evidence that the contact between Bowen and the juror could have substantially prejudiced Chin’s right to a trial. She met her burden triggering the court’s duty to investigate.

The Court’s Obligation to Investigate the Matter. Once the defendant meets his or her burden, the trial court is obligated to “further investigate the totality of circumstances surrounding the outside influence to determine its impact on jury impartiality.” Williamson, 72 Haw. at 102, 807 P.2d at 596. The investigation includes an “individual examination of potentially tainted jurors, outside the presence of the other jurors, to determine the influence, if any, of the extraneous matters.” Id. The court must investigate to determine if the outside influence was harmless or not. Messamore, 2 Haw. App. at 652, 639 P.2d at 420.

After the investigation, the burden falls onto the prosecution to show that the outside influence on the jury was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Williamson, 72 Haw. at 102, 807 P.2d at 596.


The Remedy. The trial court failed to investigate the matter and there is no way to determine if Chin’s fundamental right to a fair trial by an impartial jury had been compromised or not. Based on that impossibility, the HSC not only vacated the judgment, it remanded for a new trial. In other words, the trial court was not given the opportunity to investigate. The presumption of prejudice prevailed and a new trial was ordered.

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