Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Guilty Verdict, Despite Jury Vote that was Not Unanimous

The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday ruled that a jury’s guilty verdict should stand, despite two of the six jurors initially believing the defendant was not guilty.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. DiBenedetto.

The defendant allegedly punched the father of her children following a dispute.  She claimed she was acting in self-defense.  Her case was tried in Worcester District Court before a six-person jury.  The trial judge correctly told the jurors several times they were required to unanimously decide that the defendant was either guilty or not guilty.  The jurors retired to deliberate in private and 40 minutes later announced they had reached a verdict.  The jury was brought back into the courtroom and the clerk asked the foreperson if a unanimous verdict had been reached.  The foreperson said, “yes, we have,” and announced the defendant was guilty.  The clerk then asked all six jurors if the guilty verdict was accurate and all of the jurors responded affirmatively.  The verdict was recorded by the clerk and the jurors were discharged.  However, before the jurors left the courthouse, the judge met with them privately to thank them for their service and solicit feedback from them (which is a regular occurrence).  When the judge met with the jurors, they disclosed that their vote to convict the defendant had been 4-2 instead of unanimous.  The judge decided to order the jurors to continue their deliberations until they reached a unanimous verdict.  Later in the day, the jurors announced they had reached a unanimous verdict and once again found the defendant guilty.  The judge asked each juror individually if he or she found the defendant guilty, and they all affirmed the verdict.

The defendant appealed her conviction, arguing the jurors had been discharged before reaching a unanimous verdict, and therefore she was entitled to a new trial.  The Commonwealth argued the original guilty verdict was valid and should stand.  In a decision that appears to fly in the face of common sense, the Appeals Court said the original verdict, which was not unanimous, was final when it was announced in open court by the foreperson, affirmed by all of the jurors, and recorded by the clerk.  Therefore, the defendant was properly convicted of a crime by a vote of 4-2.  The Court reviewed a series of cases that stand for the proposition that a judge may not generally inquire into alleged improprieties in jury deliberations.  A conviction cannot be vacated if a juror changed his mind, failed to follow the judge’s instructions, or felt pressured by his fellow jurors to find the defendant guilty.  In limited circumstances, a verdict can be overturned if it is established the jury improperly communicated with third parties, or used race or ethnic bias to convict.  In this case, after the verdict was recorded, it became final.

The Court pointed out that if a judge could overturn a jury verdict after learning it was not unanimous, a slippery slope would be created where a variety of irregularities (such as jurors not understanding the definition of reasonable doubt or the burden of proof) would create mistrials.  Therefore, although a criminal conviction not supported by a unanimous vote appears to violate one of the most important principles of our judicial system, it was allowed to stand under these circumstances.