Among the many great fictions of the legal system is that juries follow instructions. In fairness, it can work to either side’s advantage, based on the circumstances. An inadvertent instruction can serve as the basis for reversal, even though no one on the jury could possibly have had a clue what the judge was talking about. The very notion that a jury can follow all that legal mumbo jumbo has always been absurd, but lacking an alternative way to tell the jury what the law is, we persist in the fiction.
But every once in a while, a jury returns with a verdict that shows just how ridiculous the whole concept can be, and that happened in Stamford, Connecticut manslaughter trial of Robert Bell:
During the trial, Bell testified that his 47-year-old wife, who had a history of emotional problems, was in an agitated state and advancing toward him waving 6-inch boning knife when he shot and killed her in the kitchen of their Hilltop Drive home.
The couple’s daughter, Elizabeth, 18, backed up her father’s version of the events in her testimony.
The prosecution contended that there were alternatives to Bell killing his wife. The case went to the jury, where issues quickly arose.
Before jurors began deliberating, the judge summoned jury forewoman Bayer, to the courtroom after receiving a note from the jury foreman Tuesday morning.
In the note, Bayer said an unidentified juror, had made a statement prior to the break indicating she would refuse to deliberate “unless she gets her outcome,” and “said (she) doesn’t care what she has to do to get it.”
The judge, Robin Pavia, “defused the potential crisis.”
[S]he reminded them deliberations were a “group process” requiring “everyone to participate and be respectful of each other’s opinions.”
After all, when a judge tells you to “participate” and “be respectful,” that changes everything. And after two more hours, the verdict was in:
Just after 12:35 p.m. Tuesday, jury forewoman Jody Bayer announced they had found the 64-year-old defendant guilty of first-degree manslaughter for killing Svetlana Bell at their New Fairfield home.
Guilty! But then came the poll.
While jurors were being individually polled, one asked a question about the process of delivering a verdict in a case where the killing itself was never in dispute and the defense was based on a claim of self-defense. It soon became clear that the jurors were uncertain if they had made a mistake.
It seems that the jury never quite got the idea of how they were to render a verdict where the defense was self-defense. They were under the impression that they had to first find the defendant guilty of manslaughter, and only afterward, find him not guilty based on self defense.
They returned 10 minutes later, about an hour after their guilty finding, and pronounced Bell not guilty. The question asked by a juror during the polling
made it apparent they were still confused by the judge’s instructions that they first had to determine whether the prosecution had proved all elements of the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt before deciding on the self-defense claim.
While this could all be chalked up to “all’s well that ends well,” provided one doesn’t consider the effect of the single word verdict on the defendant’s heart, had defense counsel, John Gulash, not asked for the jury to be polled, or had the juror who was bold enough to ask a question in the midst of polling, not done so, the verdict of guilty would have stood.
Perhaps the jurors would have milled about in the hallway afterward, wondering why nobody asked them for their second verdict, or perhaps they would have gone home assuming that the judge knew what she was doing. Who knows what might have happened? But there is no doubt whatsoever that the initial verdict of guilty could very easily have been the only verdict, despite the verdict the jury thought it was rendering.
As a practical matter, there is never an excuse for a defense lawyer not to request that a jury be polled following a guilty verdict. It can’t get any guiltier, and there is always the outside chance that a juror will crack, have second thoughts or admit they were pressured into their verdict. It happens. Rarely, but it happens.
Yet this wasn’t a polling to unearth a soft spot in the verdict, but a fundamental flaw in the jury’s grasp of how to return a not guilty verdict. There is no suggestion that the judge’s instructions were flawed, or failed to comport with the pattern jury instructions that all judges deliver. They just didn’t get it. And bear in mind, this is Stamford, Connecticut, where wealthy people with fine educations sit. And they still didn’t get it.
The notion that judges can verbalize insufferably obtuse legal mumbo jumbo, and that jurors can process them in what is certainly a foreign language to normal folks, might be deemed one of the more absurd concepts of the legal system, but for the fact that people get convicted based on them. This jury couldn’t figure out the mechanics of how to return a verdict based on the court’s instructions, and yet they sat in judgment of man charged with manslaughter based upon these instructions.
And still people argue that it’s the greatest system ever created, provided one squints and ignores the inconvenient fictions like jury instructions.
H/T Gary Hochman