Criminal Law

Challenging Criminal Jury Verdicts: Impeachment

The jury verdict in a criminal trial is extremely important to an accused individual. A verdict is the finding or decision of the jury as to whether the accused is guilty or not guilty of a charged crime. Since there are great consequences to being found guilty of a crime, courts must make sure that juries aren't improperly influenced in making their decisions.

If the verdict is challenged and the court finds that the jury was affected by improper influences, it may impeach the verdict. Impeachment means that the verdict can't be trusted and is set aside. However, not every influence will be enough to impeach the verdict.

Jury Testimony General Rule

The long-standing legal rule is that juror testimony may not normally be used to impeach a jury verdict. This rule furthers certain government interests:

  • Finality of judgment
  • Preventing the harassment of jurors
  • Juries being able to deliberate freely

The rule prevents jury testimony about matters that are essentially part of the verdict itself. Therefore, if the substance of a verdict returned into court is understood, a juror can't testify that it's based upon:

  • A testimony mistake
  • Legal misrepresentation
  • Invalid reasons
  • Improper motives

Exceptions to the General Rule

Courts will allow jury testimony to impeach a verdict where an extraneous influence allegedly affects the jury. This is an improper influence from an outside source. Intrinsic influences are those that arise out of the contact between the jurors. Jurors can't testify as to intrinsic influences.

Jurors may also testify that the verdict returned to the court wasn't the same as the one they agreed to in the jury room because of inadvertence or mistake.

Interrogation of Jurors

If there's evidence of an improper influence, the court must hold a post-trial jury hearing. The court must first determine whether the influence was external or internal. The court can't investigate the beliefs, opinions or discussions of the jurors since that's an inquiry into internal influences. The questioning of jurors is limited to whether there was an improper communication and the substance of the communication. If an improper communication occurred, the court must decide if it was reasonably possible that it changed the verdict.

An allegation that a juror was physically or mentally incompetent is an internal matter. There must be an extremely strong showing of juror incompetence before the court will investigate the matter.

Grounds for Impeaching a Jury Verdict

Intrinsic influences aren't enough to impeach the jury verdict. There must be an extraneous influence that affects the jury. Some examples include:

  • Publicity of the trial that's prejudicial
  • Outside people contacting the jurors
  • Exposure to inadmissible evidence

If the court determines that there was an extraneous influence, such as prejudicial publicity, it must decide whether the information was in fact prejudicial. If it was, the court must determine what effect the prejudicial information had upon the affected jurors. The court can set aside the verdict and order a new trial if the verdict can't be trusted because of the prejudicial information.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I have the verdict against me impeached on the basis that there was a lot of prejudicial coverage about me in the newspapers?
  • How do I challenge a verdict if I believe a juror was mentally incompetent to make the correct determination?
  • Can I have a verdict impeached if I believe the bailiff was saying prejudicial statements about me to the jurors?
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