Yakima County Superior Court recently declared a mistrial in a homicide case because of juror misconduct. The purpose of this writing is to explain what occurs when a court declares a mistrial and the effect it has on the court, the parties, the witnesses and the Yakima taxpayers.
A mistrial is a cancellation of trial after it has begun. The trial must then begin again. There are numerous reasons a mistrial may be declared. In this case, it was caused by juror misconduct. Juror misconduct can take many forms, but it usually involves a failure to follow the court’s orders.
At the beginning of each trial, and repeatedly during the trial, the judge tells the jurors that their decision must be based solely on the evidence they receive in the courtroom. They are instructed not to seek out evidence on their own, not to do any research about the case, and not to otherwise obtain information from any source outside the courtroom. The reason for this is simple. For a trial to be fair, everyone involved must be working with the same information. If a jury’s verdict is based on evidence a juror obtained from some outside source, the parties to the case have been deprived of the opportunity to challenge the validity of that evidence or produce contrary evidence.
In this particular case, a juror decided to conduct his/her own investigation. This information was then shared with other jurors. Fortunately, some jurors reported this misconduct to court staff. The judge interviewed the offending juror and other jurors on the panel. The judge concluded the juror sought out information that was not produced in court and attempted to persuade jurors using this information. The judge had no alternative but to declare a mistrial.
If the jury finds the evidence sufficient, they are instructed to return a verdict of guilty. If the evidence is insufficient, they must render a verdict of not guilty. When jurors think their role is to “find out what really happened,” problems arise.
The consequences of this one juror’s misconduct are substantial. Court administration estimates that the trial cost Yakima County taxpayers $40,155. This does not include the cost of the defendant’s attorney, who was paid privately. It also does not take into consideration the value of the two weeks invested by the other jurors, which has now been wasted.
This case will be given a new trial date. A new jury panel must be selected. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, jury selection will again take place at the SunDome. Witnesses will be called again to testify at trial. Likely, another two weeks will be spent in trial.
It is important for all participants in a jury trial to follow the instructions of the court. When a single individual ignores those instructions, the costs to Yakima taxpayers, the other jurors, and the parties can be enormous.