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Ohio Supreme Court Holds that Mistrial is Not Automatically Required When Juror Does Research

A judge incorrectly declared a mistrial after learning that a juror had done outside research during deliberations.

The case is State v. Gunnell, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-3236.

This case is notable because it has been tried and then reversed by the court of appeals on three separate occasions.

The defendant, along with co-defendants, was convicted of murder in connection with a robbery in Clark County.  The initial conviction was reversed.

During a retrial, the jury asked the court to define a word in the instructions.  The court did not respond to the jury’s request.  One of the jurors was later found with two pieces of paper, one of which contained a definition of the word and the other a printout of legal analysis of the charges.  Counsel for the defendant agreed that a curative instruction would be an appropriate response.  Over defense counsel’s opposition, and without examining the juror about the degree of  her prejudice, if any, the trial judge declared that the juror had been “irreparably tainted” and declared a mistrial.

The defendant moved to preclude retrial on double jeopardy grounds, asserting that there had been no manifest necessity for a mistrial.  The trial court denied that motion and scheduled the case for retrial. The defendant was, again, convicted at a third trial.

According to the court, “the key issue in this case is whether the trial court acted unreasonably in addressing juror misconduct and in determining that a manifest necessity existed for a mistrial.  If so, double jeopardy is implicated and bars retrial.”

The law on mistrials is that there is a wide range of possible justifications for declaring a mistrial and that the question of whether a manifest necessity exists is more easily answered in some cases than in others.  When a mistrial is predicated on juror misconduct, the trial court finding of manifest necessity will be usually be upheld, but, the court noted, the caselaw establishes that a reviewing court must be satisfied that the trial judge did not act irrationally or irresponsibly.  In other words, “a trial judge’s determination of possible juror bias should be given great deference only upon the appellate court’s  satisfaction that the trial judge exercised sound discretion in determining whether juror  bias existed and whether it could be cured.”

In terms of this case, the court noted that “the mere specter of bias is [not] a manifest necessity that warrants mistrial. In fact, quite the opposite is true.”  Although it was error for the juror to conduct outside research, “it was also error for the judge to make no more than a limited inquiry of the juror—an inquiry that merely established the misconduct, not any prejudice from it.”

As a result, declaring a mistrial was an error.  Under the Double Jeopardy Clause, once a jury has been impaneled, a defendant cannot be re-tried for the same offense unless a mistrial is declared for proper reasons.  Because the original mistrial was improper, the Double Jeopardy Clause barred the third trial, and the conviction at that trial was vacated.

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