Oral Argument Preview: What Standard Should Be Used to Grant a Mistrial for Juror Misconduct? State v. Gunnell.

On July 19, 2012, the Supreme Court issued a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis of the decision here.

 On October 19, 2011, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral arguments in State v. Gunnell2010-1636. The issue in the case is the proper standard in declaring a mistrial for juror misconduct. The misconduct involves the growing problem of jurors doing independent research on the internet in cases on which they are sitting.

 The procedural posture of this case, is extremely complicated, and is discussed only briefly.Toneisha Gunnell was one of three women involved in a concerted action to steal clothing from a number of stores at an area shopping mall . A fourth woman was the get-away driver.  Seeing a Macy’s security guard attempting to chase after the get-away car, a bystander waived his arms to try and stop the car, which struck him and sped away.  The bystander later died of his injuries.  The four defendants were tried together on one count each of felony murder, aggravated robbery, involuntary manslaughter, and theft. Each was found guilty on all counts, and sentenced accordingly.

Gunnell’s first conviction (and that of the other three defendants) was overturned by the Second District Court of Appeals because of a Batson violation.

 Gunnell was again tried together with the other three defendants in a second trial. During deliberations in the second trial, one of the jurors did some internet research on the law, and brought to the jury room a print-out of the definition of the phrase “Manslaughter: Involuntary” and a handwritten definition of the word “perverse.” The jury had previously asked for the definition of “perverse” but the trial court did not give one.

After the trial judge questioned the juror as to her impartiality and allowed the trial attorneys time to inquire as well, the trial judge declared a mistrial upon the state’s motion. Specifically, the trial judge was worried that the juror would not be able to follow further instructions, that she  would taint the other jurors with the definitions she brought, and that no admonition could cure the problem.

A third trial was held for Gunnell and the other two women involved in the theft (the get-away driver was then still pursuing a solo appeal to the federal appeals court). Gunnell was convicted and sentence to an aggregate sentence of eighteen years to life.

After Gunnell had been convicted and had begun serving her sentence, the Second District Court of Appeals reversed the grant of the mistrial in the second trial, holding that the trial judge did not perform a sufficient inquiry as to whether the juror was biased as a result of her extrajudicial research.  Gunnell was ordered discharged from custody. The state obtained a stay of execution of that order.

On appeal to the Supreme Court of Ohio, the state argues there was no abuse of discretion by the trial court in granting the mistrial. Upon discovering the extra-judicial material, the trial court immediately informed both sides, let them review the material, and asked the lawyers for any suggestions on how to handle the matter.  The juror was questioned by the court and both counsel. A curative instruction was discussed.  All counsel for the defendants were allowed to argue against the motion, which was ultimately granted.  

 The state argues that the conclusion of the appeals court was incorrect in finding that the trial court had insufficient information to rule on the state’s motion for a mistrial. In making the decision for a mistrial, trial courts see if there is a manifest necessity in ordering a new trial or if the ends of public policy would be served by a new trial.  The state relies on the Ohio Supreme Court cases of State v. Glover, 35 Ohio St.3d 18 (1988), and State v. Widner, 68 Ohio St.2d 188 (1981), to argue that there is no strict, inflexible standard that a trial court must use to find that a mistrial is needed. Instead, a trial court is granted great deference because it is in the best position to observe what happened. It is not enough, the state argues, for the appellate court to believe, in hindsight, that the decision of the trial court might be incorrect. Rather, there must be a clear abuse of discretion in how the trial court conducted its analysis, and there was none in this case.

The state also asks the Court to hold that since the extrajudicial material was contrary to the state’s case, the situation is presumptively prejudicial and the burden should shift to the defendant to establish that the juror was not prejudiced by her research.

In response, Gunnell argues that the discretion of a trial court to order a mistrial is not unlimited and that an inquiry must meet certain minimum standards to ensure fairness and be comprehensive.  The appeals court did not set a standard script for a trial court to follow. The appeals court held only that the trial court should have made a reasonable inquiry into the juror’s impartiality, and did not impose anything beyond what existing law requires. Existing law does require a manifest necessity for a mistrial, but the trial court’s inquiry of the juror was insufficient to show that, The trial court also failed to consider the double jeopardy implications of its ruling.  Gunnell cites the United States Supreme Court case Arizona v. Washington, which held that a defendant has a valued right in having a trial completed by a particular tribunal.  This valued right must be weighed against the prosecutor’s full and fair opportunity to present evidence to an impartial jury. 

Gunnell also argues that the trial court failed to refer to the statutory guidelines for a mistrial set forth in R.C. 2945.36. Finally, Gunnell argues against any kind of burden-shifting in this situation. The burden should be on the party who wants the motion to go forward, not on the party responding to the motion.

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association has filed an amicus brief in support of the State of Ohio.  Alicia McAlmont, one of the co-defendants in the appellee’s case, has filed an amicus brief in support of the appellee.  

 Student Contributor: Jason Persinger

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