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Name: People v. Echavarria
Case #: E065257
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 4 DCA
Division: 2
Opinion Date: 08/03/2017

Defendant’s first degree murder conviction reversed due to juror misconduct where jurors discussed extraneous information regarding punishment during deliberations. Defendant was convicted of first degree murder and related offenses. He moved for a new trial based on information that during deliberations one juror said she had worked in a prison and defendant could “walk tomorrow” if convicted of second degree murder, but would be far less likely to get time served if convicted of first degree murder. Another juror said, “I don’t want that,” and changed his/her vote to first degree murder. Following a hearing where all 12 jurors testified, the court denied defendant’s motion. He appealed. Held: Reversed. Juror misconduct raises a presumption of prejudice, which the People may rebut by “an affirmative evidentiary showing” that no prejudice actually resulted from the misconduct. The more serious the misconduct, the more proof is necessary to rebut the presumption of prejudice. The seriousness of the misconduct depends on (1) whether the jury was discussing an issue within the scope of their duties, (2) whether the extraneous information appeared to come from a person with authority, (3) whether it was an abstract discussion or if the defendant was directly discussed, and (4) the length of the discussion of extraneous information. Here, the misconduct was serious because information about sentencing was discussed during the guilt phase of the trial, it came from a juror who appeared to have authority based on her work in a prison, and the discussion was brief but was personal to defendant. While there was evidence the jury foreperson reminded the jury not to consider the extraneous information, this did not rebut the presumption of prejudice because not all of the jurors heard that admonition. Furthermore, although the trial court instructed the jurors not to consider punishment, their misconduct is evidence they did not follow the instruction.

The prejudice resulting from jury misconduct was substantial, warranting reversal. There are two methods for measuring whether prejudice from juror misconduct is substantial: inherent prejudice and actual bias. If either test shows substantial prejudice, the judgement must be reversed. Under the inherent prejudice test, the court examines whether the extraneous information was so prejudicial that its introduction in the trial itself would have warranted reversal of the judgment. Here, if the statement about punishment had been introduced at trial, it would have necessitated reversal of the judgment because it was irrelevant, the evidence of deliberation and premeditation was weak, and it is possible the juror voted for first degree murder based on the sentencing information rather than the evidence. Thus, the misconduct was inherently prejudicial. The misconduct was also prejudicial under the actual bias test, which examines whether it is substantially likely that a juror was actually biased against the defendant. Here, it was reasonable to infer the juror who made the statement about punishment was influenced by her work in prison and that she shared the information to make sure the defendant received the greatest possible punishment regardless of the evidence, thereby exhibiting actual bias. Because the prejudice was substantial under either test, the court reversed the judgment.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: