Replacement of Holdout Juror Didn't Taint Trial
(CN) - A holdout juror who tried to introduce her own expert testimony on clinical depression in the trial of two teenage murder suspects was properly excluded, the 9th Circuit ruled.
Natalie DeMola and Terry Bell were convicted in 2005 for beating DeMolla's mother to death. DeMola was just 16 at the time of the alleged murder, and Bell was 17. Both are now serving life in prison.
Save for a lone holdout, the jury for the couple's murder trial in Riverside County Superior Court was inclined to convict the teenagers based on the evidence, which included incriminating instant messages between the lovers and the testimony of a mutual friend and accomplice.
Citing her experience in the mental health field, however, Juror No. 7 believed that one or both of the teens had suffered from clinical depression. No one had mentioned the theory during the trial, according to the ruling.
After the trial judge twice warned that juror to consider only the evidence presented at trial, other jurors reported several days later that she had "returned home, compiled information from a dictionary and 'from her profession,' and presented the information to the jury."
The judge dismissed her, an alternate juror took her place, and the teens were convicted a few hours later.
Though the defendants exhausted their appellate options in state court, a federal judge granted their petition for federal habeas corpus relief after finding that the dismissal of the juror had violated their right to a fair trial.
U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton Tucker deemed it improper to dismiss the only juror fighting for acquittal based on the complaints of jurors who disagreed with her conception of the case. Tucker ordered the state to retry the prisoners or release them. After granting a stay on that order while it considered the state's appeal, the 9th Circuit unanimously reversed on Thursday.
The three-judge panel found that the District Court had used the wrong, less deferential standard in considering the habeas petition. The appellate panel also rejected what it called the "petitioner's benign characterization of Juror No. 7's misconduct."
"The juror represented that she had particularized expertise in the field of mental health, in which she was employed, and that she relied upon external sources to present her expert opinion to the jury," Judge Richard Tallman wrote for the Pasadena-based panel.
"The petitioners have failed to identify any directly controlling Supreme Court precedent that contravenes the California Court of Appeal's opinion that Juror No. 7's removal neither violated California Penal Code § 1089 nor the Sixth Amendment," he added. "In the absence of established precedent, the California Court of Appeal's determination that the trial court properly discharged Juror No. 7 for cause was neither contrary to, nor an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law."