The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed a Leicester man’s convictions for firearm offenses after concluding the trial judge had improperly removed a juror during deliberations. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Tiscione.
Prior to his arrest, the defendant had been living with his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s family. According to the girlfriend’s mother, the defendant had pointed a shotgun at someone in the home before placing the weapon under his bed. After seeing the defendant put a handgun in his closet, a second witness called the police. Officers responded and found the shotgun, the handgun, and ammunition, which led to the defendant’s indictment for numerous firearm offenses. The defendant argued at trial that the prosecutor had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he had possessed the guns and the ammunition.
The jury began deliberating late one afternoon and returned the following morning to continue deliberating. About an hour and a half into the second day of deliberations, the jurors sent a note to the judge suggesting they were deadlocked. A couple of hours later, a court officer noticed one of the jurors had left the jury deliberation room. She appeared visibly upset and refused to rejoin her fellow jurors. The court officer brought the juror into the courtroom, where the judge asked her what was wrong. The juror told the judge she was upset because other jurors were being argumentative and she had been accused of putting words in another juror’s mouth. The judge noted the juror seemed emotional, and asked if anything else was bothering her. The juror then told the judge several of her family members were experiencing serious medical problems, and she felt like she should be with her family. The judge decided there was “good cause” to remove the juror because she was overwhelmed by personal problems and she no longer had an ability to participate as a juror. The defendant objected to the juror’s removal. An alternate juror was assigned to replace the departing juror and an hour and a half later, the jury convicted the defendant. After concluding the defendant was also guilty of violating the armed career criminal statute, the judge sentenced him to serve 5-7 years in state prison. The defendant appealed and the SJC reversed.
Removing a deliberating juror is serious business, and a judge is permitted to do so only for reasons personal to that juror. In other words, a juror can be removed if there is some sort of crisis in her personal life, but the reason for removal cannot have anything to do with the issues in the case or with the juror’s relationship with her fellow jurors. In this case, to be sure, the dismissed juror was experiencing plenty of personal angst. However, her initial complaint to the judge involved the conduct of her fellow “argumentative” jurors. Therefore, because the juror’s problems were not related solely to her personal life, it was improper for the judge to have removed her. The next question for the Court was whether the removal of the juror prejudiced the defendant. The Court found the defendant was prejudiced, because when the dismissed juror was still serving, the jury was deadlocked. But when the alternate juror was seated, the jury convicted within 90 minutes. It is reasonable to infer the dismissed juror was the holdout and the defendant might not have been convicted if she was ordered to stay.
The trial judge had no good options in this case. The SJC suggested he could have called for the jury to temporarily suspend deliberations to allow for a cooling off period. It’s hard to imagine this juror could have gotten her act together and continued to deliberate. And so the defendant will benefit by receiving a new trial.