gavel court justice colorado

Even though a juror alleged pressure to convict and disavowed his vote after a criminal trial, the Court of Appeals upheld the guilty verdict citing no claim of coercive behavior.

A jury found Nicholas Leonel Garcia, Jr. guilty of second degree kidnapping, robbery, third degree assault and menacing. The victim described how he met Garcia and three others in a Black Hawk casino, after which they forcibly took his possessions and winnings. The perpetrators put him in a headlock and drove him to Denver, beating him once when he tried to flee. The abductee successfully escaped a second time from the moving vehicle.

After Garcia’s trial, the Gilpin County District Court judge received a letter from one of the jurors saying he wanted to withdraw his vote for the kidnapping verdict. The juror claimed he felt “pressured” to convict, and did not actually believe Garcia committed second degree kidnapping.

Judge Dennis J. Hall alerted the parties in the case, and the defense asked for a hearing to look into whether the juror was subject to coercion. Prosecutors countered that the juror had not mentioned any coercion. The judge opted against holding a hearing in accordance with the rules of evidence that forbid inquiries into the validity of a verdict — except if “an outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror.”

There is precedent in Colorado for examining whether improper conduct during jury deliberations merits an inquiry into its effect on the verdict. The state Supreme Court in a 1939 case ordered such a review after one juror alleged he was subject to “brow-beating” and “abusive language” by the other 11 members in a death penalty case.

Writing for the three-member appeals panel, however, Judge Terry Fox agreed with the lower court judge that “the juror’s letter did not allege any coercive or threatening acts warranting further investigation, and thus the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ruling that the letter did not justify intrusion into the jury’s deliberation process.”

The Court of Appeals did not agree that Garcia should have received the juror’s contact information so that the defense could investigate whether coercion occurred. In addition to protecting jurors from harassment or coercion, the rules of evidence also serve as a safeguard against “disappointed litigants,” Fox added in the Aug. 6 opinion.

Benjamin Levin, an associate professor of law at the University of Colorado, said that courts tend to place greater emphasis on weeding out problematic jurors through the initial selection process, rather than wading into what transpired during deliberations.

"Juries are unpredictable," he said. As a lawyer, "you're always taking a risk when you're going to the jury."

Levin pointed to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado as an unusual example of juror misconduct meriting review. Two jurors reported after a trial that one of their fellow members made anti-Hispanic statements about the defendant and doubted a witness because she was "an illegal." The Colorado Supreme Court found no violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury, but in a 5-3 ruling, the nation's highest court reversed the decision, deeming it an exception to the rule against revisiting jury deliberations.

"There's sort of a collective shrug or throwing up of our hands and say, 'we don't really know what's going on in the jury room'," Levin added. "We try to keep control of the direction on the front end, with some really narrow carve-outs on the back end. But otherwise, it's a free-for-all.'"

By a 2-1 vote, the panel also affirmed an instruction the trial court judge gave to the jury in response to a question about what constituted kidnapping. Under Colorado law, the offense happens when a person is “seized and carried” without their consent. Hall, in his response to the jury, elaborated that this included “any movement, however short in distance.”

The defense objected to the judge’s additional commentary, but the appeals panel’s majority called it “a reasonable response.”

In her dissent, Judge Jaclyn Casey Brown argued the trial court should have also mentioned that such movement must substantially increase the risk of harm to the victim, in accordance with prior court decisions. Failure to do so effectively reduced the prosecution’s burden of proof to convict Garcia.

“I find the partial definition given by the trial court in this case problematic,” she wrote. “I would conclude that a supplemental instruction defining ‘seized and carried’ as ‘any movement, however short in distance’ without reference to a substantial increase in risk of harm to the victim is not a correct statement of the law.”

The case is People v. Garcia.

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