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State v. R.D.

July 16, 2001

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT AND CROSS-RESPONDENT,
v.
R.D., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT AND CROSS-APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LaVECCHIA, J.

ON CERTIFICATION TO Appellate Division, Superior Court

Chief Justice Poritz PRESIDING

OPINION BY Justice LaVecchia

Argued February 27, 2001

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

In this appeal we consider whether defendant was deprived of a fair trial because the trial court failed to voir dire all jurors on being informed by one juror that he knew extraneous information about a witness. Immediately after hearing the witness testify, the juror notified the court that he realized he knew the witness and had knowledge of certain information concerning her. As a result, he stated he could not remain impartial. Before being excused, the juror informed the court that he had not discussed that information with any other juror. Neither counsel requested that any other member of the jury be questioned and the trial continued, ultimately resulting in defendant's conviction.

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division held that the trial court committed plain error in not questioning the remaining jurors and reversed defendant's conviction. We granted certification, 166 N.J. 604 (2000), and now reverse, applying an abuse of discretion standard to the trial court's determination that a voir dire of the remaining jurors was not required.

I.

In July 1995, defendant, R.D., was charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:14- 2a(2)(a) (Count One); second-degree sexual assault, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2b (Count Two); second-degree endangering the welfare of a child, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4a (Count Three); and third-degree terroristic threats, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-3 (Count Four). The charges arose from allegations made by his seven-year-old granddaughter that he sexually molested her while she and her sister were staying with his family during her mother's hospitalization. The child's mother suffered from sickle cell anemia and required in-patient care from time to time.

On the first day of trial, a partial jury was selected. The following day, after the entire jury was empaneled, the judge made the following opening remarks:

[D]on't discuss the case with your fellow jurors. Don't have conversation about the evidence or the trial with your fellow jurors during the trial . . . . In other words, you're going to be free to go have lunch in a little while, . . . [w]e must put you on your honor that you will not discuss the case, and with regard to your fellow jurors, remember what I said when we were selecting you? . . . Please don't discuss the case with your fellow jurors during the trial.

If you were to go to lunch during the day and sit down with two other jurors and start talking about the case amongst the three of you, the other jurors aren't there. And by the same token, you wouldn't want other members of the jury to be talking about the case when you're not there. The time will come at the end of the case when I will want you to talk it over. But that's in the jury room at the end of the trial. Please don't talk to each other about the case before that.

Following that statement, the trial commenced with three witnesses testifying on behalf of the State, the last being the victim's mother. No breaks were taken during the mother's testimony, but the court did hold two sidebar discussions with counsel. At the conclusion of her testimony, the court informed the jury that they were finished for the day and reminded the jurors that they could not discuss the case with anyone. Before the jury was excused, the trial court stated that the juror who wished to discuss a scheduling matter concerning the next week could come forward after everyone had left. Following that remark, another juror, juror number two, stated to the court "I need to see you."

After the court addressed the scheduling matter, juror number two approached the bench at sidebar and informed the court that he belatedly realized that he knew the victim's mother. He stated that in his capacity as a nurse at Mountainside Hospital, he "took care of her" for about a week, and during that time he "overheard things about her relationship with her family." The following exchange took place between the court and the juror, in the presence of counsel:

THE JUROR: In the beginning of the trial when you read all the names, I didn't recognize anybody. I know [the victim's mother] because I took care of her. I'm a nurse at the Mountainside Hospital and had her for a week.

THE COURT: [], the witness who just testified, is the mother of the alleged victim in this matter. You took care of her in Mountainside Hospital that night or on some other occasion?

THE WITNESS [sic]: No. I can't remember the dates. I took care of her about a week for the sickle cell.

THE COURT: All right. And was she your patient for a week?

THE JUROR: Yeah.

THE COURT: Other than treating her or whatever, what did your contact with her consist of, just so we know?

THE JUROR: I gave her pain medicines and - - what troubles me is I overheard things about her relationship with her family.

THE COURT: During the course of that?

THE JUROR: And I formed an opinion, and I don't know, that's my problem.

THE COURT: I understand. You have some concern as to whether - - now that you realize who she is, whether you could ...


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