Death Sentence Overturned On Juror Misconduct

The death-penalty sentence for Gary Sampson, as a result of convictions for multiple murders in 2001, has been reversed and a new sentencing trial has been ordered because a juror lied when answering a jury form.

A Mere Technicality?

The juror, identified only as "C," failed to truthfully answer several questions on a jury questionnaire. During the jury selection process, she failed to disclose that she had been the victim of domestic violence and that her husband had in fact threatened her with a rifle. The juror failed to reveal many circumstances and experiences that would otherwise have disqualified her participation as a juror in the trial.

Judge Mark Wolf was clearly pained by the need to grant a new trial. In his decision, he wrote, "In essence, despite dedicated efforts by the parties and the court to assure that the trial would be fair and the verdict final, it has now been proven that perjury by a juror resulted in a violation of Sampson's constitutional right to have the issue of whether he should live or die decided by twelve women and men who were each capable of deciding that most consequential question impartially."

Some may dismiss this issue as a mere technically. After all, Sampson pled guilty and he clearly murdered three men, so who cares if a juror lied about having been subjected to domestic violence?

When the State initiates the process to execute a person, however, the trial is as much about protecting due process as it is about getting the conviction. Due process should never be dismissed as a mere technicality. It is all that stands between a legal execution and a murder. A judge's duty is to ensure the integrity of the judicial system. When cases involve a potential death sentence, that duty obviously must be heightened.

"Death is Different"

As the Supreme Court has noted, because of the irrevocability of the sentence once it has been carried out, the level of due process a defendant receives needs to be heightened in order to minimize the likelihood of a tragic mistake.

A trial court needs to be scrupulous in maintaining the integrity of the entire process. In this case, Judge Mark Wolf, in a 37-page opinion, painstakingly examined the specific questions put to the offending juror and how true answers could have affected the parties' views of her impartiality.

The judge describes how the juror lied about and concealed information regarding many topics. She did not reveal that her husband had threatened her with a gun. She kept secret the fact that she feared for her life and obtained a court order for protection from him. She did not disclose that she had witnessed his arrest for violating the order. She failed to reveal that he was a drug user and that his drug use had destroyed her marriage. She did not disclose that her daughter also had a drug problem, had been arrested and had served time in prison.

None of this information came out during jury selection because C was too embarrassed to reveal any of it. This information only became known during three post-trial hearings, at which, Judge Wolf notes, "She often cried when required to think about these matters. She was frequently unable to discuss them candidly or coherently."

She also "repeatedly characterized each of those experiences as 'horrible' and a 'nightmare.'"

But Did Her Lies Affect Her Ability To Decide The Issues Impartially?

The U.S. Supreme Court has a rather elaborate set of rules for a court to follow when problems with the veracity of a juror develop. In the case of McDonough Power Equipment, Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548 (1984), the Supreme Court outlined a series of questions a judge should use to examine alleged juror misconduct.

The core issue is whether the juror's lies demonstrate her inability to view the case impartially. The juror's impartiality goes to the fundamental question of the fairness of the trial itself.

McDonough Inquiry

A judge must work through five questions:

  • Was the question asked that would have revealed the information if answered honestly?
  • Was the question material?
  • Was the answer "deliberately false" i.e. not a result of misunderstanding?
  • Does the motive for answering relate to an ability to impartially decide the questions in the case on the evidence presented?
  • Would the question, if answered honestly, have provided grounds to excuse the juror "for cause?"

Judge Wolf points out that this is separate inquiry from actual or inferred bias (another ground to dismiss or exclude a juror), but may have related elements to that inquiry. He then exhaustively goes through each of the five steps.

He concludes that Sampson was denied an impartial juror in this case. He declared this denial to be prejudicial to Sampson because in death cases, a single juror can prevent a death sentence. Judge Wolf stated, "The intensely emotional matters that caused C to lie repeatedly under oath in order to avoid disclosing and discussing them relate to matters the jury was required to consider in deciding whether to sentence Sampson to death."

He goes on to detail how C feared being murdered, had been threatened with a gun, had her marriage destroyed by drugs and was embarrassed ashamed by her daughters prison sentence. He draws parallels to Sampson's victims and his drug use.

He repeatedly comments on how C had difficulty dealing with her experience and he notes, the "emotional responses to facts that are similar to evidence that will be presented in a trial present a risk of an emotional involvement that will adversely affect a juror's impartiality."

This type of assessment is fraught with peril, as Judge Wolf implicitly acknowledges by writing such a lengthy and detailed opinion to arrive at an answer. While C claimed that she could make an impartial decision in the case, the court observes:

"It is particularly difficult to now assess C's state of mind in 2003 because she was so distraught during her testimony. C herself may not now truly know whether she performed her jury service impartially. Her repeated lack of candor and her inability to discuss certain matters unemotionally and coherently cause the court to be concerned that C was not actually able to decide the relevant issues based solely on the evidence."

Because of this, the court concluded Sampson is entitled to a new trial on the issue of his sentence.