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People v. Spencer

New York Court of Appeals

June 22, 2017

The People & c., Respondent,
v.
Darrell Spencer, Appellant.

          Susan H. Salomon, for appellant.

          Eric C. Washer, for respondent.

          DiFIORE, Chief Judge:

         The issue presented on this appeal is whether the trial court erred, after its inquiry pursuant to People v Buford (69 N.Y.2d 290');">69 N.Y.2d 290 [1987]), in failing to discharge a sworn juror who, on the fourth day of deliberations, repeatedly stated that she could not "separate [her] emotions from the case" and "[did not] have it in [her]" to decide the case on the facts and the law. We hold, under the unique circumstances presented here - where the juror repeatedly and unambiguously responded that she was unable to render an impartial verdict based solely on the evidence and the law - that the trial court erred in failing to discharge the juror as "grossly unqualified to serve" pursuant to CPL 270.35 (1). Accordingly, defendant is entitled to a new trial and the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed.

         I.

         Defendant was indicted for intentionally murdering the victim by stabbing her 38 times. On the fourth day of deliberations, juror number one called the court clerk and "asked what she needed to do... to get excused." The trial judge conducted an extensive inquiry of the juror in the presence of the attorneys and defendant during which the juror repeatedly stated that she was unable to discharge her duty. The following exchange took place:

         "THE COURT: Could you tell us what's going on?

         THE JUROR: I'm not sure that I'm able to separate my emotions from the case so I just wanted to -

         THE COURT: Well, I mean, you have to do that. You have to separate your emotions. You're a member of a jury of 12 people. As I said, this has to be decided. And you promised that you will be able to do so. It has to be decided on the evidence and the law as you find it to be. And I know it's difficult to be a juror but that's, you know - I mean we've all put a lot of time, a lot of effort, and there's no way that we can go forward without you.

         THE JUROR: Well I do understand. I feel - I thought I would be able to but it is my duty to let you know that I haven't been able to.

         THE COURT: Well, I mean, it's something. We can't go forward and there's no way we can excuse you. We can't go forward without you, we just can't.

         THE JUROR: So is it just that I make a decision based on my emotions just to get it out of the way?

         THE COURT: No, no I wouldn't ask you to make a decision based on your emotions. I would ask you to do - look we're all the product of who we are and we bring our life experience to whatever we do. But what you need to do is put aside, to the extent that you can, your emotion and make a decision. Speak to your fellow jurors; discuss with your fellow jurors; listen to your fellow jurors; express your own views to your fellow jurors; and then, eventually, come to a decision as to the one issue here. As to whether or not the People have proven Mr. Spencer's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I'm going to have to ask you to really try very hard to do that.

         THE JUROR: I honestly have been. And I don't feel that we can.

         THE COURT: We have to continue with the trial. And, I mean, I can speak to you in the context of all your fellow jurors. What all of you need to do in terms of sharing. But there's no new jury that's going to be any better [at] doing this than you are."

         Despite the court's efforts to impress upon the juror the gravity of her sworn duty to decide the case on the facts and the law, the juror did not change her mind. Again, she stated, "THE JUROR: I don't feel like I'm able to. I mean I've been trying extremely hard and I don't feel that I can without - I can't separate it[, ] I thought that I could."

         The court continued to exhort the juror to fulfill her solemn duty; the juror, however, remained resolute that she was unable to do so:

         "THE COURT: Well, I mean, whatever emotion - I mean you can decide the case here based on what you heard and saw in this courtroom, that's what you need to do. I mean that's what you need to do is to decide the facts as you see them and apply the law as I've said it to you, to those facts, and do that. And that's your only concern. If you do that you've done your job.

         THE JUROR: But that's what I have been trying to do and that's why I've come to this conclusion that I ...


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