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In re Stern

Decided: March 9, 1953.

IN RE NORMA H. STERN, AN ALLEGED MENTAL INCOMPETENT


On appeal from the Chancery Division of the Superior Court, certified by the Supreme Court on its own motion.

For reversal -- Justices Heher, Oliphant, Burling, Jacobs and Brennan. For affirmance -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt and Justice Wachenfeld. The opinion of the court was delivered by Heher, J.

Heher

In a proceeding instituted by her brother, Norma H. Stern was adjudged "a mental incompetent as a result of unsoundness of mind" and "incapable of governing herself and managing her affairs," and a guardian was appointed; and she appeals, appearing by her next friend under an order of the Superior Court.

The judgment was entered on the verdict of a jury returned May 8, 1952, after a trial lasting three days; and it is urged that "supplemental remarks" made by the judge to the jury, when that tribunal reported a disagreement after deliberating five hours, "had the coercive effect of improperly inducing the verdict" of incompetency.

The jury commenced their deliberations at 11:20 A.M. At 12:50 P.M., they were reinstructed on the "burden of proof," to meet an exception directed to the charge. Deliberations were resumed at 1:05 P.M. At 4:20 P.M., a disagreement was reported. The jury had been instructed that a verdict could be rendered by ten or more of the jury agreeing. N.J.S. 2 A:80-2. Thereupon, the judge said:

"Members of the Jury, you realize you have been trying to arrive at a verdict since 11:20 this morning, but we have been here two and a half days and the Court would appreciate it if you could see if you can arrive at a verdict, and therefore asks if you will not go back to the jury room, and the Court is willing to remain here until you arrive at a verdict. You, I am sure, realize that we have been here trying the case hoping to arrive at a verdict. It costs a lot of money to the state to maintain the court, and if you cannot arrive at a verdict it means that it will probably have to be retried which will take several days. See if you cannot arrive at a verdict. You may return to the jury room."

The jury retired and promptly returned with a verdict of mental incompetency by a vote of 10 to 2, so quickly, in fact, as to preclude the inference of renewed deliberation. It is stipulated that the verdict was rendered "in a matter of minutes," "in a few minutes," "almost immediately."

The jury did not interrupt their deliberations for lunch. No food was provided, and none was requested.

Obviously, when the jurors were exhorted to further effort at agreement and a verdict, there were more than two of the panel who were not convinced of the mental incompetency of the subject of the inquiry, and the jurors themselves believed their differences were irreconcilable. The quick response suggests that the economic factor adverted to by the judge was the decisive circumstance, although it had no relevancy to the substantive issue of fact within the jury's province. The judge did not inquire into the matters which were the subject of disagreement with a view of further instructions designed to clarify the issue and enlighten the jury for the fulfillment of its essential function. The sole ground urged for resolving the differences was the financial burden a retrial would lay upon the State, and the immediate

return of the verdict bespeaks an expedient surrender by one or more of the jurors of convictions entertained after more than five hours of discussion and deliberation. The denial to the alleged incompetent of the substance of the right of trial by jury is a compelling inference and the judgment is accordingly not sustainable.

Although allowable at the early common law, coercion of a jury is not permissible in any degree under our constitutional system of judicial administration. The resolution of the facts is the exclusive province of the jury, and an ...


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