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Early deliberation by jurors improper

In Gray v. State, 36 Fla. L. Weekly D2363 (Fla. 4th DCA October 26, 2011), the appellate court reversed the trial court's failure to grant a hearing to interview jurors. The case represents a concise analysis of the law and should be considered by defense counsel whenever a similar situation arises.

Gray had been convicted of robbery with a firearm and resisting arrest without violence. Following trial, counsel for the defendant filed a motion to interview jurors and for a new trial based upon a conversation defense counsel had with the alternate juror after deliberations began.

The motion set forth that an alternate juror, after being released, approached the attorney in the courthouse as he walking to the elevator. The alternate juror explained that several jurors felt "extremely strongly" that the defendant was guilty. The alternate juror also related that one of the other jurors stated, "[W]hat was the defendant doing walking with a gun at one o'clock in the morning?"

The district court recognized that a trial court's decision on a motion to interview jurors is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. Anderson v. State, 18 So. 3d 501, 518 (Fla. 2009). Furthermore, Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.575 provides that a party who has reason to believe that the verdict may be subject to legal challenge may move the court for an order permitting the interview of a juror or jurors. The court goes on to set forth that upon a finding that the verdict may be subject to challenge, the trial judge shall enter an order permitting the interview. Furthermore, Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.575 does not require the filing of a sworn affidavit in order to interview a the jurors.See Pozo v. State, 963 So. 2d 831, 835 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007).

The well recognized law is that juror interviews are not permitted relative to any matter that inheres to the verdict itself and relates to the jury's deliberation See Reaves v. State, 826 So. 2d 932, 945 (Fla. 2002). Jury inquiries are limited to allegations which involve an overt prejudicial act or external influence, such as a juror receiving prejudicial non-record evidence or an actual express agreement between two or more jurors to disregard their oaths and instructions.

In the case of Williams v. State, 793 So. 2d 1104, 1106 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001), the court ruled that the issue of whether deliberations were undertaken prematurely is an appropriate subject matter for judicial inquiry. In the Williams case, two jurors discussed the case during trial and expressed opinions as to the guilt before the close of evidence. Such an allegation was held to be sufficient to set forth a prima face case of premature deliberations by two members of the jury.

In Ramirez v. State, 922 So. 2d 386 (Fla. 1st DCA 2006), the appellate court followed the holding in Williams ruling that juror interviews should be allowed following an allegation that an alternate juror told the bailiff that the jury was split as to the defendant's guilt until after the juror heard the defendant's testimony.

In Ramirez, the court explained that deciding a case before hearing all the evidence is antithetical to a fair trial.

The appellate court in Gray held that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion for juror interviews because the defendant's allegation gave rise to a prima facie case of premature jury deliberation. The appellate court therefore remanded the case so that juror interviews could be obtained. It went on to note that after an opportunity for juror interviews, the defense bears the burden of either to show that prejudice resulted or that a premature deliberation or conversations were of such a character as to raise a presumption of prejudice.

The court then stated that, "If the defense proves that deliberations or conversations took place among jurors about the case before the case was submitted, the burden will shift to the State to rebut the resulting presumption or prejudice."

Citing to Ramirez, 922 So. at 390.

The court also then noted that if the trial court determines that premature deliberations took place, a new trial must be ordered, unless the state proves that the defendant was not prejudiced by the juror misconduct.