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United States v. Meeker

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

May 11, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
DON MEEKER

          RULING DENYING MOTION FOR HEARING AND NEW TRIAL

          HON. VANESSA L. BRYANT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Hearing and New Trial. [Dkt. 82.] Defendant seeks an order vacating the jury verdict of conviction rendered on December 12, 2017. [Dkts. 62, 66.] The Government has filed an Opposition to the Motion. [Dkt. 83.] For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion is DENIED.

         I. Factual Background

         The basis of Defendant's motion is alleged jury misconduct. Defendant's girlfriend, Emelin Cartagena, attended the trial on December 11, 2017. [Dkt. 73-1 (Cartagena Aff.) at ¶ 2; Dkt. 71 (Motion to Withdraw) (identifying Ms. Cartagena as Defendant's girlfriend).] Upon exiting the courthouse at approximately 4:00 pm, she “heard juror # 7 state to juror # 11 ‘I don't think he had any involvement.'” [Cartagena Aff. at ¶ 4.] Ms. Cartagena “immediately notified attorney Mr. William Paetzold, Mr. Amir Shaque, and the defendant Donald Meeker of the incident, who were all together at the time.” Id. at ¶ 5.

         In response to the Court's inquiry, Defense Trial Counsel did not notify the Court of the jurors' conversation at the time “because of the equivocal nature of the statement.” [Motion to Withdraw at 2.] Defense Trial Counsel explained that “First, Ms. Cartagena did not indicate that the juror had specifically referenced the defendant, or the trial, by the alleged remark. Furthermore, there was no context given to the alleged remark.” Id.

         On December 18, 2017, Defense Trial Counsel met with Defendant at Wyatt Detention Facility and Defendant instructed defense counsel to move for a mistrial and/or a new trial on the grounds of juror misconduct. Id. at 1. Defense Trial Counsel moved to withdraw their representation of Defendant thereafter because they believed there was no legal authority to file Defendant's requested motion, and because that disagreement caused a “break-down in the attorney client relationship.” Id. at 2. After a hearing, the Court granted the motion to withdraw and appointed Attorney Michael Hasse to represent Defendant going forward. [Dkt. 78.] Attorney Hasse filed the instant motion on March 28, 2018. [Dkt. 82.]

         II. Statement of Law

         Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33 provides that, upon a defendant's motion, a district court “may vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a). A court has “broad discretion in dealing with” a motion for a new trial. United States v. Feng Li, 630 Fed.Appx. 29, 32 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting United States v. Thai, 29 F.3d 785, 803 (2d Cir. 1994)).

         “Absent evidence to the contrary, we presume that jurors remain true to their oath and conscientiously observe the instructions and admonitions of the court.” United States v. Cox, 324 F.3d 77, 87 (2d Cir. 2003); see also United States v. Nieves, 354 Fed.Appx. 547, 553 (2d Cir. 2009) (noting that juries carry a presumption of impartiality, finding no misconduct where a juror “heard one juror suggest that a text message be sent to an alternate juror, but . . . had no knowledge of whether such a text message was, in fact, sent”). That presumption is overcome, and a “mistrial or other remedial measure is only required[, ] if both juror misconduct and actual prejudice are found.” Feng Li, 630 Fed.Appx. at 32; Cox, 324 F.3d at 86 (same). A court has a duty to investigate an allegation of juror misconduct “only when the party alleging misconduct makes an adequate showing . . . to overcome the presumption of jury impartiality.” United States v. Ianniello, 866 F.2d 540, 543 (2d Cir. 1989).

         “It is a generally accepted principle of trial administration that jurors must not engage in discussions of a case before they have heard both the evidence and the court's legal instructions and have begun formally deliberating as a collective body.” Cox, 324 F.3d at 86 (finding no juror misconduct where, during a break midway through trial, a legal secretary employed by the government reported that a juror told her the jurors wanted a conviction, but the juror denied having discussed the case with other jurors or having any preconceived notions about the verdict). Such deliberations threaten the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair and impartial jury trial. Id. (citing U.S. Const. amend. VI).

         If jurors engage in premature deliberation despite a court's instruction to refrain from doing so, those premature deliberations “may constitute juror misconduct.” Id. Premature deliberations do not necessarily constitute jury miscount. “[I]ntra-jury communications pose a less serious threat to a defendant's right to an impartial trial than do extra-jury influences.” Id. (citing United States v. Bertoli, 40 F.3d 1384 (3d Cir. 1994)). While “extra-jury influences create a presumption of prejudice that must be rebutted by the government for the court to uphold the conviction, . . . cases involving impermissible intra-jury contacts do not create such a presumption.” Bertoli, 40 F.3d at 1394 (citing United States v. Console, 13 F.3d 641, 686 (3d Cir. 1993)); see also Feng Li, 630 Fed.Appx. at 32 (finding no juror misconduct where the court determined a juror's occasional comments to a fellow juror were not inappropriate, explaining that “when the alleged prejudice results from statements made by the jurors themselves, and not from media publicity or other outside influences, ” the trial court has especially broad flexibility in handling the matter).

         Even where evidence of juror misconduct exists, a new trial is not appropriate absent “actual prejudice, ” which is “generally the touchstone of entitlement to a new trial.” United States v. Abrams, 137 F.3d 704, 709 (2d Cir. 1998) (finding that even if defendant had shown that jurors improperly communicated before the close of the case, a new trial was inappropriate because defendant “could not possibly demonstrate actual prejudice”).

         A court is not required to hold an evidentiary hearing or otherwise further develop the evidentiary record before ruling on a motion for new trial alleging juror misconduct. See, e.g., United States v. Anderson, 689 Fed.Appx. 53, 55 (2d Cir. 2017) (finding no abuse of discretion where district court found defendant's argument for juror misconduct not credible on the briefing and did not hold a hearing); United States v. Botti, 722 F.Supp.2d 188, 200 (D. Conn. 2010) (“The[] Second Circuit . . . set a high bar for permitting post-verdict interviews of jurors, and confer[s] upon this Court broad discretion in deciding whether to permit them.”). In fact, in evaluating a motion for new trial, “[p]ost-trial jury scrutiny is disfavored because of its potential to undermine full and frank discussion in the jury room, jurors' unwillingness to return an unpopular verdict, and the community's trust in a system that relies on the decisions of laypeople.” United States v. Stewart, 433 F.3d 273, 302 (2d Cir. 2006).

         “[P]robing jurors for potential instances of bias, misconduct or extraneous influences after they have reached a verdict is justified only when reasonable grounds for investigation exist, in other words, where there is clear, strong, substantial and incontrovertible evidence that a specific, nonspeculative impropriety has occurred which could have prejudiced the trial.” Stewart, 433 F.3d at 302-03. A court should refrain from inquiring further “whenever it becomes apparent to the trial judge that reasonable grounds to suspect prejudicial jury impropriety do not exist.” Id. This disinclination to allow post-verdict interviews of jurors stems from the concern that “if post-verdict juror testimony could be used to impeach a verdict, the result would be to make what was ...


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