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Despite Alleged Juror Misconduct, Court Affirms Molestation Convictions

June 7, 2021

The Court of Appeals concluded a new trial was not warranted, resulting in reversing the trial court and reinstating the defendant’s child molestaion convictions and life sentence.

In the case of State v. Melly, the defendant sought to overturn his child molestation convictions and obtain a new trial due to allegations of juror misconduct. Ultimately, the Georgia Court of Appeals disagreed and affirmed his convictions.

After a 2015 trial, the defendant was convicted of aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, child molestation, enticing a child for indecent purposes, aggravated sexual battery, and cruelty to children in the first degree. He was given a life sentence but the trial court vacated his conviction, finding that there was sufficient evidence establishing misconduct on the part of one of the jurors. The State then appealed.

The Juror Misconduct at Issue

Throughout the trial, the jury is instructed that they are not to conduct their own research or rely on information obtained outside the evidence presented at trial. After the conclusion of the trial, the defendant filed a motion to vacate the verdict and grant a new trial after learning that a juror contacted the judge’s office about possible misconduct by another juror.

Apparently, one juror broke these rules by pulling up statistics on her phone about the characteristics of child molesters. She asked other jurors if they wanted to see it. After the jury foreperson told her that they couldn’t consider it, she put the phone away, and the information was never discussed amongst the other jurors. One of the jurors testified that the foreperson “put an end to it before any information really got out.”

The trial court found that (1) the juror in question did impermissibly obtain extraneous information in direct violation of the court’s instructions, (2) the juror attempted to show the other jurors a screenshot from her phone containing this information, and (3) at least one other juror was aware that this juror had collected this extraneous information and wished to share it with the other jurors during deliberations.

Following a hearing, the trial court agreed with the defendant that this constituted grounds for a new trial. The judge stated that the juror’s misconduct impacted the verdict and ruled that the conviction must be vacated.

Appellate Court Reverses the Granting of a New Trial

Under Georgia law, extraneous information that is improperly brought to a juror’s attention is presumptively prejudicial to the defendant. However, juror misconduct does not necessarily warrant setting aside the verdict unless the conduct is so egregious that “the verdict must be deemed inherently lacking in due process.” The Court of Appeals noted that the granting of a new trial is not warranted if the State can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the juror misconduct did not affect the verdict.

The appeals court agreed with the trial court that juror misconduct definitely occurred. It then turned the inquiry to whether the misconduct harmed the defendant to the extent that it affected the jury’s verdict. Citing prior decisions, the appeals court held that the evidence established that the juror’s misconduct was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

The court compared the misconduct to prior cases where jurors did internet research, looked up meanings of words in a dictionary, or learned extraneous information from someone in a phone call. In all of these cases, it was found that the information wasn’t shared with other jurors, didn’t impact the cases’ outcomes, so the granting of new trials weren’t justified.

The court then contrasted the situation in this case with one where the Georgia Supreme Court found that a new trial was warranted. In that case, a juror spoke with a police detective about the meaning of different classifications of murder and shared this information with the other jurors who then discussed it during deliberations. In another case, the Supreme Court again found that a new trial was warranted when a juror shared extraneous information with the other jurors and the jury then found the defendant guilty after hearing the “extra-judicial information.” In both of these cases, it was found that because the information was not only shared, but also discussed by the other jurors, it was reasonable to conclude that the juror misconduct contributed to the ultimate verdict reached by the jury.

Establishing Juror Misconduct Isn’t Always Enough

The defendant in this case was certainly correct regarding the juror’s misconduct, but without demonstrating clear harm to the verdict that was reached, the Court of Appeals was able to conclude that the granting of a new trial was not warranted. As a result, the ruling of the trial court was reversed and the defendant’s child molestaion convictions and life sentence were reinstated.

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