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Breaking The Rules To Get Justice

Kurt Mix would have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice had his attorneys not defied the court.

Mix, an engineer who worked for BP at the time of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, was convicted of obstructing justice in connection to the incident. Mix was said to have deleted text and voice mail messages related to BP’s efforts to estimate the spill’s magnitude; he has denied intentionally destroying evidence. After his conviction last December, Mix had been scheduled for sentencing in August.

However, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval threw out Mix’s original conviction this month. While Duval rejected Mix’s claim that there was not sufficient evidence for conviction, he ruled that Mix was not tried by an impartial jury.

At a point in deliberations where the jury was deadlocked, the forewoman told her fellow jurors that she had overheard something in an elevator that confirmed her view of Mix’s guilt. Some jurors said she characterized what she had overheard as something that would allow her to not “lose any sleep” over a conviction.

The forewoman did not tell the rest of the jury what, specifically, she overhead. But the mere fact that she told them such a remark existed was enough to bring some undocumented, unwitnessed and uncross-examined information into the jury room. About two deliberative hours later, the formerly deadlocked jury reached its verdict, according to the judge.

Under the circumstances, Duval reached the appropriate conclusion. But the only reason Mix is getting a new trial is that his lawyers talked to members of the jury after their verdict was delivered - an action for which the judge admonished them as a clear violation of court rules.

In many places, judicial rules and standards of attorney conduct severely restrict the circumstances under which defense lawyers are allowed to talk to jurors following a trial. Far beyond simply shielding jurors from harassment, any information from a juror that does not relate to “extraneous prejudicial information” or outside influence brought to bear on a fellow juror is unusable as grounds for seeking a new trial.

Duval noted in his decision that jurors were under strict instructions not to discuss deliberations after the case ended, and said that the initial interviews with the defense attorneys were “inappropriate and contrary to the law of this district and the circuit.” However, in light of the interviews, Duval did call the jurors to testify, and he used their testimony as basis for granting Mix a new trial.

Mix was lucky that the unfairness of his first trial was enough to trump the court rules. That was not a foregone conclusion. Consider Tanner v. United States, a 1987 case that originated in Florida and made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. After the defendant was found guilty, two jurors contacted the defense and reported that several of their fellow jurors consumed alcohol during the trial’s lunch breaks, and subsequently slept through portions of the afternoon sessions. The defense attorney further investigated and found that some of the jurors had also reportedly used marijuana and cocaine during the proceedings. However, the lower courts denied a hearing on juror misconduct, and the Supreme Court upheld their decision, noting that “drugs and alcohol voluntarily ingested by a juror seems no more an ‘outside influence’ than a virus, poorly prepared food, or a lack of sleep.”

Such rules don’t make much sense if we assume the main purpose of a trial is to render impartial and fair justice to the defendant. They make a lot of sense, however, if we assume they are designed to prevent judges from having to spend more than a minimal amount of time dealing with after-the-fact challenges to jury verdicts and from having to retry cases that have already been tried once - including cases exactly like Mix’s, where impartial justice demands a retrial.

Defense attorneys should not have to risk judicial sanction in order to ensure that their clients receive justice. If courts are unwilling to change their procedures, then Congress or state legislatures ought to step in and enact statutes that free defense lawyers to do their jobs.

Such changes need not force jurors facing unreasonable harassment and pressure after rendering a guilty verdict. One approach would be to require judges to instruct jurors, both before deliberations and after a verdict but before the jury is discharged, that each juror is under an obligation to report to the court any misconduct or outside influence during the trial or deliberations.

Another method would be to inform jurors that, although they might be contacted by parties to the case after the trial is over, they are under no obligation to discuss the trial with anyone, and repeated contacts or harassment should be reported to the court. This would allow attorneys to reach out in a reasonable way and to a limited extent, but would preserve penalties for lawyers who try to browbeat jurors after the fact. Jurors would be allowed to discuss the case but would never be required to do so.

By creating a new, more logical framework for handling juror misconduct while also protecting jurors who render an unpopular decision, we can remind the courts that they exist to dispense justice, not merely to create, and then clear, a judicial calendar.

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