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Posts filed under 'Reasonable Doubt Standard'

“Hearing About” Murder Case Not Enough for Cause Challenge

Yesterday the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s denial of a challenge for cause directed at a potential juror in a case involving murder-for-hire. In Samuels v. State, __ So. 2d __ (Fla 4th DCA, May 13, 2009), the Court reaffirmed the longstanding rule that if there is any reasonable doubt about a juror’s ability to render an impartial verdict the juror should be stricken for cause. As noted by the Court, close cases on this issue should be resolved in favor or excusing the juror rather than leaving a doubt as to impartiality.

However, in reviewing the colloquy between counsel and the prospective juror in this case the Court found nothing in the record that would raise a doubt as to the juror’s impartiality other than she admitted during voir dire that she had heard people talk about the case where she was employed as a hairdresser, and she had also seen it on the news and read about it on the internet. The prospective juror stated that notwithstanding what she had heard, she had not formed an opinion about the case, and she could decide the case based solely on the evidence presented at trial. As a result, the conviction was affirmed.

2 comments May 14th, 2009

“Conflicting Views” Raise a Reasonable Doubt

Today the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed a criminal conviction because the trial judge failed to strike for cause a juror who “held conflicting views” on the presumption of innocence. Initially, during jury selection the juror stated “he’s guilty until proven innocent,” but later said “I think it was a misunderstanding earlier…,” and then went on to state “I can be fair and impartial.” The Court looked at the entirety of the juror’s comments (which are set forth in the opinion) and concluded there was reasonable doubt about the juror’s ability to serve in the case.  The Court reiterated the long-standing principle that “close cases involving challenges to the impartiality of potential jurors should be resolved in favor of excusing the juror rather than leaving a doubt as to impartiality.” Joseph v. State, 983 So. 2d 781 (Fla 4th DCA 2008.)

The opinion also sets forth the procedural steps which must be taken in order to preserve error in this situation. Defense counsel properly: 1) used all peremptory challenges, 2) requested an additional peremptory challenge, 3) objected to the court’s denial of the request for additional peremptory challenges, and 4) identified the juror he was required to accept as objectionable. The court noted, “It is not necessary that a defendant explain why the venireperson for whom the additional peremptory challenge was sought was objectionable; they must merely identify that individual as objectionable.”

Bottom line: The juror’s statements, taken in their entirety, and although coupled with an expression that she could be fair and impartial, raised a reasonable doubt about her impartiality, and she should have been excused for cause.

Add comment June 18th, 2008

Cause Challenges for Caps On Damages and Rising Insurance Rates

This week, in Rodriguez v. Lagomasino, 972 So. 2d 1050 (Fla 3rd DCA 2008) the Third District Court of Appeal reversed a defense verdict in an auto accident case because the trial judge failed to strike two questionable jurors for cause. During voir dire, prospective Juror Gutierrez said he would not favor either side and would be “in the middle,” but he had also said his wife had been in an auto accident and his insurance company was going double his rates. He said he did not know if he could put his wife’s situation aside. Another prospective juror, Mr. Hillberry said he thought there should be caps on damages because of all the frivolous lawsuits in our litigious society. Juror Hillberry said he doubted his “thoughts” would come into play in this particular case, but he admitted it was possible they could. The Miami trial judge, Daryl Trawick, refused to strike the jurors for cause because “based upon their responses” he felt “they were rehabilitated.”

The Third District reversed based on Florida law’s well established “reasonable doubt” standard, and cited Nash v. General Motors Corp. 734 So. 2d 437 (Fla 3d DCA 1999), “When any reasonable doubt exists as to whether a juror possesses the state of mind necessary to render an impartial verdict based solely on the evidence submtted and the instructions on the law given to her by the court, she should be excused.”

1 comment January 26th, 2008

Voir Dire and Comparative Fault

Last week, in Algie v. Lennar Corp., 969 So. 2d 1135 (Fla 4th DCA 2007) the 4th District Court of Appeal reversed a defense verdict in a slip and fall case. A juror had told the lawyers during jury selection that although he wouldn’t have any problem “serving fairly” if chosen, he believed that in every slip and fall case the person who slips and falls is at least partially responsible. The juror said this would factor into his decision in the case and would be something the plaintiff would have to overcome in order to prevail.

Referring back to the seminal Supreme Court decision of Singer v. State, 109 So.2d 7 (Fla 1959), and its progeny, the court observed that although the juror in this case subsequently stated he believed he could be fair, the juror never recanted or receded from his earlier expressed view. The court held that any “ambiguities or uncertainties” concerning a juror’s impartiality must be resolved in favor of excusing the juror. Therefore, the defense verdict was reversed.

Add comment November 19th, 2007

Whose Prejudice Is This Anyway?

The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed a breach of contract case for failure to excuse a Juror Green for cause who said she  had a “bad taste” from having been sued in the past which would “probably” cause her to view the case with prejudice one way or another. The problem was — Green never did say against whom she would be prejudiced, and none of the attorneys ever followed up during voir dire to find out, and no one ever bothered to ask her whether she could set her “negative feelings” aside. At one point during jury selection the trial judge asked the panel as a whole whether there was anyone on the panel who would not have the parties starting off on the same starting line, like in a race, but none of the prospective jurors responded verbally.

The 4th DCA applied the reasonable doubt standard and reversed the verdict. The Court noted that “while the juror was silent when the court advised the panel that both parties are entitled to ‘start off at the same line’ and inquired of the panel whether they could wait until ‘the end of the race’ to deliberate and determine what the verdict should be, reasonable doubt is not overcome by a juror’s silence as to a question asked on the entire panel.” Four Wood Consulting, LLC v. Fyne, 981 So. 2d 2 (Fla 4th DCA 2007)

Interestingly, the Court also observed: “We recognize that, here, the trial court and the appellees’ counsel may well have been right in surmising that the juror really ‘did not want to be there’ and ‘wanted off this jury.’ But, close issues as to juror bias are resolved in favor of excusing the juror, rather than leaving a doubt.”

1 comment August 24th, 2007

Supreme Court Upholds Importance of Peremptory Strikes

The Supreme Court of Florida properly reversed a jury verdict in a case where counsel was forced to use a peremptory strike during jury selection on a juror who should have been stricken for cause. The jury verdict was reversed even though it was undisputed on appeal that the jury that ultimately decided the case was a “constitutionally impartial” jury. The Supreme Court held it is prejudice “per se” to require counsel to use even a single peremptory strike on a prospective juror if there was a “reasonable doubt” about that juror’s impartiality. No showing of “actual prejudice” is required on appeal. See, Kopsho v. State, 959 So. 2d 168 (Fla 2007).

This case reaffims the importance of peremptory strikes and demonstrates the unique position they have in jury selection in Florida. The purpose of peremptory challenges is different than the purpose of challenges for cause. In Florida, a juror should be stricken for cause by the Court if the juror is legally objectionable, i.e. if there is a “reasonable doubt” about the juror’s impartiality. Peremptory strikes are different. They are discretionary strikes for counsel. They can be used by counsel to remove potential jurors who are NOT otherwise legally objectionable. They can be used by counsel to remove potential jurors who your gut tells you will not be good jurors in your case. They are for removing the potential jurors who give you the willies, even while the “record” is clean, and even while they smile and proudly proclaim they can be fair and impartial and follow the court’s instructions. Our Supreme Court has repeatedly held it is “per se” reversible error for a trial judge to require counsel to use even a single peremptory strike on a juror who should have been stricken for cause. Forcing counsel to use even one discretionary peremptory strike on such a juror is reversible error, EVEN if the jury that ultimately decides the case is an impartial jury. It is prejudice “per se” to require counsel to use a precious peremptory strike on a juror if there was a reasonable doubt about that juror’s impartiality. On appeal, in Florida, it is not necessary to show that there was “actual prejudice” or that the jury that returned the verdict was somehow biased. That is how important discretionary peremptory strikes are during jury selection in Florida.

A common misconception of many trial judges during jury selection is that peremptory strikes can and should be used by counsel to “cure” improperly denied cause challenges. This is one of the most common mistakes made by trial judges during voir dire. Counsel should not have to use one of his or her precious and limited peremptory strikes to cure an error by the trial judge. Counsel is immediately at a disadvantage when opposing counsel suddenly has more of these discretionary strikes due to an error of the trial judge in failing to remove a juror who should have been removed for cause. That disadvantage is “per se” reversible error. Peremptory strikes are different and unique, and in Kopsho, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed their importance in the law of jury selection in Florida.

1 comment June 22nd, 2007

One Bad Juror Is All It Takes

At the conclusion of Voir Dire, the Defendant wanted to strike four jurors for cause. The judge denied all the challenges. At least one of the jurors was questionable. On appeal, a new trial was ordered by the 4th DCA because “seating a single juror whose impartiality may reasonably be questioned is a structural error not subject to harmless error analysis.”

In Dorsett v. State, 941 So2d 587 (4 DCA 2006). the Court noted that the prospective juror had stated she thought the defendant should have to prove his innocence. There was nothing in the record to indicate she ever receded from that preconception. Thus, there was a doubt about her impartiality. “A juror is not impartial when she has difficultly accepting and employing the presumption of innocence.”  It was error for the trial court to deny the challenge for cause, and a new trial was ordered.

Add comment November 22nd, 2006