The Sanctity of the Jury

U.S. v. Torres-Chavez | 13-1340

April 2014

Thomas Jefferson famously said: “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Someone should have told the Seventh Circuit. In U.S. v Torres-Chavez, No. 13-1340, the Court held that a jury verdict will stand even if the jurors defy the Constitution.

A jury convicted Torres-Chavez of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. After the verdict was entered, the jurors were returned to the Northern District of Illinois jury pool and some were selected as part of the venire in a second case. During voir dire, several of those jurors suggested that they were probably not appropriate jurors because they had (effectively) just convicted Torres-Chavez for exercising his Fifth Amendment right to not testify in his own defense. One juror stated, I felt that he “probably did it” because “he was not defending himself.” Two others shared similar sentiments. This information made it back to Torres-Chavez, who cited it in support of a motion for a new trial.

The district court denied Torres-Chavez’s motion citing oft-forgotten FRE 606(b) – the rule prohibiting the admission (and therefore consideration) of evidence of a jury’s own internal, deliberative process (as opposed to evidence of unfair outside influences on jury deliberations). The Seventh Circuit affirmed. According to the Court, the language of FRE 606(b) is clear, and these juror statements constituted evidence of internal influences on jury deliberations. Moreover, the Court held, the “values that undergird” the rule are strong, and there is no reason to create an exception to the rule for situations in which jurors hold it against a defendant that he exercised his right to remain silent. “We are not prepared to say that no circumstances exist which would warrant a prudential exception [to FRE 606(b)], but . . . these circumstances do not.”

Taking the sanctity of juror deliberations one step further, in Crompton v. BNSF Railway Co., No. 13-1686, the Court held that a jury verdict will stand even if it defies the law of gravity.

Crompton worked for the BNSF Railway Co. and sued BNSF after he was hit in the head by the door of a train cab he exited while working. The central issue was causation: did the door swing open and hit him because the latch was somehow defective (rendering the railway liable) or because Crompton had never properly latched the door before exiting the train (rendering Crompton liable)? Crompton testified that he properly latched the door and that the latch system must have failed because of excessive jostling or vibration by the train. The jury agreed, awarding him $1.6 million.

BNSF appealed, arguing that Crompton’s evidence was insufficient to support the conclusion that excessive jostling or vibration caused the latch system to fail. But the Court disagreed. The Court concluded that Crompton’s theory was “implausible,” and that his theory of failure was “improbable as far as the laws of physics are concerned” because “the door’s counterweighted handle would have had to move upwards against gravity in order to unlatch the door.” Nevertheless, the jury’s verdict could stand, because BNSF produced no evidence to prove his theory “impossible.” Held the Court: when “there is an evidentiary basis for the jury’s verdict” – here, Crompton’s testimony that he latched the door – “the jury is free to discard or disbelieve whatever facts are inconsistent with its conclusion.” Including, apparently, the existence of gravity.

Perhaps a quote from Dave Berry is more apt than that of President Jefferson: “We operate under a jury system in this country, and as much as we complain about it, we have to admit that we know of no better system, except possibly flipping a coin.”