The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a woman’s conviction for operating under the influence of alcohol, ruling the trial judge made inappropriate comments that may have coerced the jury into finding the defendant guilty. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Firmin.
In February of 2012, a Framingham police officer pulled over the defendant’s vehicle for driving erratically. After concluding the defendant was under the influence of alcohol, the officer arrested her. A Framingham District Court jury convicted her of OUI (second offense) and she appealed, arguing the judge’s comments to the jurors before they began deliberating the case constituted a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.
In every criminal case, after the evidence has been submitted and the attorneys have delivered their closing arguments, the judge instructs the jury on the law. The instructions include a definition of reasonable doubt, a reminder that the defendant is presumed innocent, a lesson on direct and circumstantial evidence, and the actual elements of the crime that the Commonwealth was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In the normal district court case, jury instructions take about half an hour. Judges are not required to draft their own instructions – there are model jury instructions that have been approved by the appellate courts that judges can read word for word. Most judges do not deviate from the model jury instructions because any additional commentary can jeopardize a conviction, as it did in this case.
Following his general instructions of law, the judge told the jurors it would be appreciated if they could resolve the case because if a verdict could not be reached, the case would need to be retried and the court schedule would not allow for a retrial until several months later. The judge also told the jurors if there was a ground swell of support toward a conviction or an acquittal at some point during the deliberations, they should do “whatever you need to do to get to that ultimate point.” The jury was sent to deliberate at 12:41 p.m. Immediately before releasing the jury, the judge said if a verdict was quickly reached before 1:00, the Court would receive it. Otherwise, lunch was from 1:00-2:00 and no verdict would be recorded during the lunch hour. The jury ultimately returned the guilty verdict at 2:28.
The Appeals Court concluded that the judge’s comments might have had the effect of coercing the jury into reaching a verdict. The Court was particularly concerned that the trial judge’s language might have left the impression with the jury that it was obligated to decide the case one way or another. Interestingly, there is a jury instruction in Massachusetts (called the Tuey-Rodriguez instruction) that judges give to juries that are deadlocked following a lengthy period of deliberation. Tuey-Rodriguez has similar language to that used by the trial judge in this case. However, the Appeals Court noted that the judge’s comments here were inappropriate in two respects: first, he should not have informed the jurors that the case must be decided at some point; and second, his comments tended to induce jurors who were tentatively in the minority to be persuaded by the jurors in the majority.
The Appeals Court reversed the conviction and sent the case back to Framingham District Court for a new trial – exactly what the judge was hoping to avoid in the first place.