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Ohio Supreme Court Allows Public Access to Case Records in Criminal Prosecution

The Ohio Supreme Court issued an opinion about public records in criminal prosecutions.  The court held that public access to court records would not result in publicity that could lead to the inability of a defendant to receive a fair trial.

The case is State ex rel. Vindicator Printing Co. v. Wolff, No. 2012-Ohio-3328. (July 25, 2012).

Facts:  In July 2010, a grand jury returned a 73-count indictment charging seven persons, including current and former public officials, and three organizations with felony and misdemeanor charges, including engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, conspiracy, perjury, bribery, money laundering, tampering with records, disclosure of confidential information, conflict of interest, filing a false financial-disclosure statement, and soliciting or accepting improper compensation.

As a result of pre-trail publicity, the judge ordered that all filings in the case “shall be under seal with the exception of filings that are clearly procedural and cannot possibly implicate Defendants’ concern about receiving a fair trial.”  The judge issued a supplemental order in which he explained that his “filing under seal protocol” was based on the “significant media coverage” that the criminal cases had attracted and his obligation “to balance the right of the defendants to a fair trial and the right of the public to be informed of these proceedings through the media or through personal examination of the record.”  The judge was concerned with whether “fair and impartial potential jurors can be found . . . i.e., potential jurors without preconceived notions of how this case should be decided that they cannot set aside due to pretrial publicity.”

A newspaper and television station submitted to the judge and the Mahoning County clerk of courts requests to inspect and copy filings and documents submitted to the court in the criminal cases, including those that had been filed under seal.  When relators were not provided access to some of the requested records, they filed a motion for an order vacating the sealing orders. The maintained some records under seal and continued a protocol in which the state would submit to defense counsel, prior to filing, any document that “can be reasonably expected to trigger a concern on the part of  defense counsel that publication of the document will prejudice the impaneling  of an impartial jury.”

The newspaper and television station filed for a writ of mandamus to compel the judge to release all records filed with the clerk of courts in the underlying criminal cases and a writ of prohibition to prohibit him from presumptively closing any proceedings or sealing any documents filed with or otherwise provided to the court.

The newspaper and television station claimed entitlement to the sealed records based on the Rules of Superintendence, the Public Records Act, the United States and Ohio Constitutions, and the common law.  The Ohio Supreme Court decided the case based on the Rules of Superintendence, which provide for public access to court records.  Under these Rules, “[c]ourt records are presumed open to public access.”  The court explained that “to qualify as a case document that is afforded the presumption of openness for court records, the document or information contained in a document must merely be ‘submitted to a court or filed with a clerk of court in a judicial action or proceeding’ and not be subject to the specified exclusions.”

The Ohio Supreme Court rejected the claim that access the the records would substantially prejudice the defendants’ right to a fair trial. The court said:  “There was not clear and convincing evidence to establish that the  prejudicial effect of pretrial publicity generated by public access to the [records] would prevent them from  receiving a fair trial.”  The court added:  “the constitutional right of the defendants to a fair trial can be protected by the traditional methods of voir dire, continuances, changes of venue, jury instructions, or sequestration of the jury.”


If you have questions about this issue, or if you need an Ohio Criminal Defense Lawyer for your Ohio criminal appeal or other post-conviction matter, please visit the  Appeals Section of J. Adam Engel, LLC.



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.


A Juror Yelling Out the word “Guilty!” in the Jury Room is not Grounds for Mistrial

A Discharged juror who told the other members of the jury that the defendant was guilty was not cause for a mistrial, says the The Ohio Fifth Appellate District.

The case is State v. Johnson, 2012-Ohio-3227.

The Defendant was charged with felonious assault with a repeat violent offender specification.

During voir dire, a break was taken prior to the impaneling of the jury. Before the break, the trial court gave the usual admonitions to the jury, and specifically stated, “Do not form or express any opinion on the case,” as well as “Do not discuss the case among yourselves or with anyone else.”

However, one juror yelled out the word “Guilty!” in the jury room. No potential juror told the court, when questioned, that the statement had affected their ability to fairly decide the case.

The appeals court noted that the granting of a mistrial is necessary when a fair trial is no longer possible. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that a defendant accused of a state criminal violation shall be tried before a panel of fair and impartial jurors. The law is clear that a jury is obligated to decide a case solely on the evidence, and any communication or contact outside the courtroom or jury room about the matter at trial between a juror and another person, and any independent inquiry or experiment by a juror concerning the evidence or the law, constitutes juror misconduct. In addition, juror misconduct includes a juror forming an opinion as to guilt or innocence before all the evidence is presented.

However, a new trial is not required every time a juror has been placed in a potentially compromising situation. In this case, the Fifth District concluded that a mistrial was not necessary.  The trial court told the jurors about the juror’s removal. The trial judge instructed the jury that “in the United States system of justice there is a presumption of innocence, and a person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and the burden is on the prosecution to prove each and every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt, and at this point in time that presumption of innocence exists.”  He also told the jury that he had concluded “that all of you understand that these individuals are innocent until proven guilty, and that [the] Juror’s behavior and comment has not influenced you in any way, shape or form with respect to these proceedings; may be as to your opinion of him but not to these proceedings.”