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SJC Rules New Trial Necessary Where Question of Sleeping Jurors Raised

tired-or-bored-1432201-300x254The Supreme Judicial Court recently issued a decision in Commonwealth v. Villalobos, which addressed issues related to sleeping jurors. The SJC reversed the defendant’s convictions because the judge failed to respond adequately to a report that two jurors had been asleep during portions of the trial.

The background was as follows. In a split decision, the Appeals Court affirmed the defendant’s convictions. The SJC noted that “[t]he issue that divided the Appeals Court was the trial judge’s failure to conduct a voir dire (http://dictionary.findlaw.com/definition/voir-dire.html) after the prosecutor reported that some jurors fell asleep during the trial. The SJC stated, “‘[I]f a judge receives a complaint or other information suggesting that a juror was asleep or otherwise inattentive, the judge must first determine whether that information is “reliable.”’ [Commonwealth v.] McGhee, [470 Mass. 638,] 644 [2015]…. If … the judge does find the information reliable, he or she ‘must take further steps to determine the appropriate intervention.’ [Id.] ‘Typically, the next step is to conduct a voir dire of the potentially inattentive juror, in an attempt to investigate whether that juror “remains capable of fulfilling his or her obligation to render a verdict based on all of the evidence.”’ Id., quoting Commonwealth v. Dancy, 75 Mass. App. Ct. 175, 181 (2009). The judge has ‘substantial discretion in this area.’” On appeal, “‘[t]he burden is on the defendant to show that the judge’s response to information about a sleeping juror was “arbitrary or unreasonable.”’ McGhee, supra, quoting [Commonwealth v.] Beneche, [458 Mass. 61, 78 (2010)].” 

In its decision, the SJC opined that the defendant “met his burden. Indeed, this case is much like McGhee, in which we determined that the judge’s failure to intervene gave rise to ‘serious doubt that the defendant received the fair trial to which he [was] constitutionally entitled.’ [Id.], 470 Mass. at 645, quoting Commonwealth v. Braun, 74 Mass. App. Ct. 904, 906 (2009). As the Appeals Court explained, during [the defendant’s] trial, the prosecutor reported one day that one juror ‘had fallen asleep “several times” during the testimony,’ and the next day, that a different juror ‘was sound asleep during the cross-examinations.’…. The judge … did not give any indication that he doubted the reliability of the prosecutor’s reports, yet he did not question the jurors to determine whether they had in fact fallen asleep and, if so, what portions of the evidence they might have missed. Instead, the judge simply observed each juror for the rest of the day…. [T]he … judge appears to have been under the mistaken impression that he could not intervene unless he personally observed a juror sleeping…. On the contrary, the receipt of reliable information from any source, not just the judge’s own observation, that a juror is sleeping requires prompt judicial intervention.” The SJC concluded that “‘[t]he serious possibility that a juror was asleep for a significant portion of the trial’ is a structural error and can never be considered harmless. McGhee [] at 645-646.’”

Trial by jury is one of the most stressful experiences a human being can go through. It is of the utmost importance that a person facing criminal charges have confidence in his or her attorney’s ability to prepare and present the best defense possible, as well as confidence in his or her jury’s ability to pay attention and fairly assess the merits of the Commonwealth’s case and the defense. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has tried numerous cases and has succeeded in the face of many challenges during the course of his work as a trial attorney. Call him for a consultation today.