Don’t Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

February 25, 2010

Potential juror Sanders may have been sleeping during jury selection. Florida law is clear that “sleeping” during voir dire is a valid race-neutral reason for striking a juror  — not to wake him up,  but to remove him from the panel! See, Davis v. State, 560 So2d 1346 (Fla 3d DCA 1990).

When the prosecutor used a peremptory strike against juror Sanders, the lawyer for the defendant, Eugene Harriell, raised a Neil challenge because Sanders was African-American.  During argument on the Neil challenge, the lawyer for a codefendant said that she didn’t see Sanders sleeping “at all,” to which the trial judge replied, “I didn’t see him sleeping either.” Harriell’s lawyer then said, “Whether he’s sleeping or not, if he had his eyes closed, it doesn’t matter. He can still be listening.” The trial judge permitted Sanders to be stricken, and yesterday the Fourth District Court of Appeal correctly upheld that decision. Harrell v State, 29 So. 3d 372 (Fla 4th DCA 2010).

The 4 DCA noted that in order for non-verbal behavior (like sleeping) to be a valid “race-neutral reason” for a strike the non-verbal behavior must meet the “hurdle” of either being observed by the trial court or being supported by the record. Dorsey v. State, 868 So. 2d 1192 (Fla. 2003) However, before that hurdle even arises opposing counsel must challenge the factual basis for the nonverbal behavior. In reviewing the above colloquy between defense counsel and the trial court, the 4 DCA noted that (unlike the lawyer for the codefendant) Harriell’s  lawyer  “did not expressly dispute the prosecutor’s observations about juror Sanders.”  The Court noted that “At best, the defense attorney conceded that the juror’s eyes may have been closed, but suggested that the juror may have been sleeping.” As a result, since he never expressly disputed the prosecutor’s observation that juror Sanders was sleeping, the matter was not preserved for appeal and his client’s conviction was affirmed.

Lesson: Don’t let sleeping dogs lie. State your observations and objections clearly, and make sure the record accurately reflects everything (verbal and nonverbal) that is taking place in the courtroom.