Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Homicide Conviction Despite Possibility that Jurors Slept During Trial

A split panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday affirmed a Revere man’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter and other charges, despite the possibility that multiple jurors slept through some of the trial testimony.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Villalobos.

In August of 2009, the defendant and many others attended a friend’s funeral in Lynn.  After the funeral, a group of attendees traveled by limousine to Club 33 in Boston.  After the club closed, the defendant and his friends congregated around their limos when the victim, who was not part of the group, decided to shoot off his mouth.  After the victim yelled insults at the defendant’s group, he was attacked and viciously beaten by anywhere from six to 20 people.  Other associates of the victim were also attacked and beaten by the defendant’s group of friends.  When the police arrived, the defendant and many of his friends had retreated to the limousine.  The police emptied the limousine for a show up identification procedure, and a witness identified the defendant as having been an aggressive participant in the fight.  The defendant and 11 others were arrested at the scene.  The primary victim died from the injuries sustained in the beating.  The defendant was charged with murder, but the jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter (in addition to three counts of assault and battery).

In his appeal, the defendant asserted the trial judge had committed error in failing to conduct a hearing after the prosecutor told him one of the jurors had fallen asleep several times.  The judge promised to keep an eye on the juror and address the situation if it became necessary.  At the end of the day, the judge commented that the juror was alert throughout the afternoon.  The following morning, the prosecutor identified another juror who had apparently been “sound asleep” through the testimony.  The judge again said he hadn’t noticed any of the jurors sleeping and there were apparently no additional issues regarding sleeping jurors for the remainder of the trial.

Just last year, the Supreme Judicial Court addressed the proper protocol for a judge to follow after learning a juror may have been sleeping.  If a judge receives reliable information that a juror was asleep during the trial, the judge is obligated to conduct a hearing to assess the truthfulness of that claim.  In this case, the Appeals Court held that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in failing to conduct a hearing.  The Court concluded that if a juror had been sleeping, the nap was short-lived.  Further, the defendant’s attorney did not address the issue and nobody asked the judge to conduct a hearing.  Because the information regarding the sleeping juror was “tentative,” the judge did not abuse his discretion in his response.

Justice Peter Rubin dissented.  In his view, the trial judge had an obligation to conduct a hearing to determine if the juror had, in fact, been sleeping, and it was irrelevant whether the judge himself had witnessed the sleeping juror.  The judge’s pledge to keep his eye on the jurors and be on the lookout for sleepers was insufficient.

The problem of sleeping jurors is surprisingly widespread.  The SJC’s mandate that judges conduct hearings to determine the seriousness of the problem is absolutely appropriate.  The Appeals Court’s ruling that the judge’s conduct in this case was sufficient is wrong.