Dismissing a Holdout Juror in the Middle of Deliberations Because “His Mind Is Bent . . . Against the Prosecution”

That’s unconstitutional, says a Ninth Circuit panel in yesterday’s Williams v. Cavazos decision (which seems correct to me). An excerpt:

As a general matter, the Sixth Amendment does not prohibit the mid-deliberation dismissal of jurors who are unable to serve or who engage in misconduct. In Miller, for example, we found no constitutional violation in the dismissal of two jurors after deliberations had begun: one of whom was sick with the flu, and another who had been intoxicated the previous morning and had fallen asleep during the rereading of testimony. To the contrary, we held that the “California substitution procedure followed by the trial court” — Penal Code section 1089 — was constitutional because it “preserved the ‘essential feature’ of the jury required by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.” …

It is just as clear, however, that the Sixth Amendment does not allow a trial judge to discharge a juror on account of his views of the merits of the case…. The jury is the only actor permitted to determine guilt — not the judge. It is well-established, of course, that “a judge may not direct a verdict of guilty no matter how conclusive the evidence” in a criminal case. It would similarly vitiate the “essential” role of a jury to act as a “safeguard” against both the power of the state and the court for a judge to selectively dismiss jurors based on the views of the merits of the case they express during deliberations. Such dismissals are thus prohibited as well, because a court cannot “do indirectly that which it has no power to do directly.”

Indeed, no one, including the judge, is even supposed to be aware of the views of individual jurors during deliberations, because a jury’s independence is best guaranteed by secret deliberations, such that jurors may “return a verdict freely according to their conscience” and their “conduct in the jury room [may be] untrammeled by the fear of embarrassing publicity.” …

Accordingly, in deciding whether to discharge a juror mid-deliberation, the critical Sixth Amendment questions are whether, after an appropriately limited inquiry, it can be said that there is no reasonable possibility that the juror’s discharge stems from his views of the merits, and whether the grounds on which the trial court relied are valid and constitutional. If the answer to either question is no, the removal of the juror violates the Sixth Amendment. We will discuss the two questions separately….

[T]he record discloses a “reasonable possibility that the impetus for [Juror No. 6’s] dismissal stems from the juror’s views on the merits of the case.” At least seven jurors expressed the view that Juror No. 6 did not believe that the evidence was sufficient to prove guilt of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, thereby making a total of two-thirds of the panel…. The juror’s views regarding the insufficiency of the evidence were thus made known to the prosecution as the result of a rigorous inquiry into the thought process and reasoning of Juror No. 6. Neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeal, however, even mentioned this clear evidence regarding the juror’s views as to the merits, or acknowledged the strong possibility that Juror No. 6 was a holdout juror for legitimate reasons….

Although the reason offered above is sufficient to require granting the writ on the ground that Juror No. 6’s discharge violated the Sixth Amendment, the trial court’s lack of “good cause” for removing the known holdout juror provides an independent reason for reaching the same conclusion….

Although refusing to follow the law or refusing to deliberate would be “good cause” for discharging a juror, the trial court expressly disclaimed any finding that Juror No. 6 was guilty of either, and the Court of Appeal affirmed that determination. The only good cause relied upon for dismissal of Juror No. 6 was “actual bias.” The court did not find, however, that Juror No. 6 was “biased” in any traditional sense of the term, as would have been the case if, for example, he had stated that he could not be impartial or had accepted a bribe related to the case. Nor did it find that he had “implied bias,” such as might have resulted from Juror No. 6 having a connection to one of the parties, or being related to someone who had either committed or been a victim of some similar crime.

Rather, the court found that the juror was “biased” for five overlapping reasons: (1) “the fact that he added his own words to the court’s instructions as to what the law is,” which “indicates where his mind is bent towards and that is biased against the prosecution in the matter”; (2) “his repeating of the severity of the charge in conjunction with his bringing up the subject of juror nullification,” which “establishes his state of mind that he’s bent in that regard, that he’s concerned about the severity of the charge, which means the severity of the punishment”; (3) when the judge “asked him what burden of proof he was relying on, he said it was a [sic] very, very convinced beyond a reasonable doubt,” which the judge believed to mean “higher than beyond a reasonable doubt because the charge is murder”; (4) the fact that “[h]e also disagrees with the felony murder rule”; and (5) the fact that “[h]e’s dishonest to me in stating that no juror including himself had discussed the severity of the charge, had not discussed juror nullification.”

[T]he bases for discharge relied upon by the trial judge [do not] constitute, under the circumstances of this case, “good cause” for removing a known holdout juror. [The court then goes on to deal with each of the five reasons. -EV]