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State v. Williams


October 23, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Indictment No. 05-04-0917.

Per curiam.


Submitted October 1, 2007

Before Judges Graves and Sabatino.

After a three-day jury trial in January 2006, defendant Antonio Williams was found guilty of possessing heroin, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(1). That trial followed a mistrial of the case in December 2005, which had ended with a hung jury on the second day of deliberations. Defendant was sentenced to a four-year prison term.

Defendant was indicted after police discovered on the ground near him two packages containing heroin. At about 5:30 in the afternoon of January 29, 2005, two Long Branch police officers, patrolling the neighborhood in an unmarked car, initially saw defendant outside of an apartment complex. Defendant was standing on the sidewalk with a group of at least three other people.

The officers testified that when they approached, defendant left the group and walked towards an apartment building. One of the officers testified that he saw defendant drop something while he was near the doorstep of an apartment. Defendant allegedly then started walking back towards the officers. Minutes later, one of the officers found the packages on the ground, with the aid of a flashlight. Laboratory analyses subsequently confirmed that the packages contained heroin.

Defendant presented a competing version of the facts. He testified that he had driven to Long Branch to drop off his sister and daughter so that they could visit friends in the apartment complex. He then got out of his car and began conversing with old friends on the sidewalk, when a police car approached. Defendant contended that the police immediately put everyone up against a gate, that one of the officers seemed to recognize him, and that he was placed under arrest when he failed to produce identification.

According to defendant, at that point one of the officers found something on the ground. They asked him and the others to admit that the items belonged to them, but no one claimed ownership.

In his trial testimony, defendant specifically denied that he ever possessed the heroin packages or that he had thrown anything on the ground. He also denied walking towards the apartment, contrary to the officers' sworn observations.

As corroboration of his account, defendant presented at the second trial*fn1 two witnesses, his sister April Williams and an acquaintance, Darran Jones. Defendant's sister testified that he had driven her to a friend's apartment, and that he had been waiting for her outside and conversing with old friends. She stated that, upon hearing that police had pulled up outside, she went to a screen door of the apartment. There she watched her brother's encounter with the officers. Although she admitted seeing a patrolman pick up something off the ground, she insisted that she did not see her brother or anyone else throw anything down beforehand.

Jones testified that he was present when defendant drove up to the apartment complex. He recalled that a group of about seven people then gathered with defendant and started conversing. Police in an unmarked car soon arrived. At that point, several members of the group wandered off. The police then began to question defendant.

Jones contended that he was standing about three to five feet away when defendant was placed into the squad car. He testified that from his close vantage point he did not see defendant throw anything down. Jones stated that while defendant was in the police car, a patrolman discovered something on the ground. Jones acknowledged that he knew that the packages belonged to "somebody," but he did not attribute their ownership to defendant.

In summations, the prosecutor and defense counsel respectively argued that the case turned on the credibility of the police witnesses, versus that of the defendant and the other defense witnesses, concerning the drugs found on the ground. The defense attorney asserted that there were several inconsistencies in the accounts of the two officers. Defense counsel also argued that it would not make sense for defendant to have walked back in the direction of the police if he had indeed been in possession of illegal drugs. The prosecutor countered that the defense witnesses had motives to lie, and that the police officers' versions of the events were reasonably consistent and believable.

After the judge read to them the charge, the jurors began deliberations at 1:36 p.m. on Thursday, January 19, 2006. Later that afternoon, the jurors requested the court to read back the grand jury and trial testimony of the police officer who had found the heroin packages on the ground. The requested testimony was read back, and deliberations resumed. Still unable to reach a verdict, the jury was sent home after 4:00 p.m.

Deliberations continued the next day, Friday, January 20. At 11:20 a.m. the jury returned a verdict, finding defendant guilty of the sole count of the indictment. The jury was polled, and all twelve jurors noted their assent. The judge then thanked and dismissed the jurors, with customary admonishments that they not discuss their deliberations with anyone.

The following Monday, January 23, the trial judge's secretary received a telephone message from a female juror ("T.S."), who had been Juror No. 12 in defendant's case. The juror did not speak with the judge, but left her telephone number. In her message, T.S. stated that she had felt that she had been "pressured" to return a verdict the previous Friday. The source of that "pressure" was not identified.

The court did not call the juror back. Instead, the judge wrote two short letters, one to T.S., and the other to both counsel. The judge's letter to counsel went as follows:

Dear Counsel:

On Monday, January 23, 2006[,] my secretary received a message from [T.S.] who was juror number 12 in the above matter. [T.S.] advised that she felt pressured to return a verdict on Friday, January 20, 2006.

I have enclosed a copy of my response to her.

The judge's letter to the juror, also mailed that day, stated:

Dear [T.S.]:

My secretary notified me of your message that you felt pressured to return a verdict in the matter of State v. Williams on Friday, January 20, 2006.

I have advised the attorneys of your concerns.

After receiving this correspondence, defense counsel filed a motion, pursuant to R. 1:16-1, requesting that the court interview T.S. about the circumstances that had prompted her message. Following oral argument, the judge denied the motion.

The judge recalled that she did not observe any of the twelve jurors, including T.S., hesitating in rendering the verdict two months earlier. Surmising that T.S. had simply mulled over her vote during the weekend after the verdict, the judge noted the absence of any proof that the juror had been tainted during her service by outside information. On the other hand, the judge underscored the public policies that safeguard juror privacy and value the finality of verdicts. Consequently, the judge concluded that defendant had not demonstrated good cause to interview T.S. under the Rule.

Defendant now appeals. His sole argument is that the judge was too hasty in denying his application to interview T.S. At a minimum, he argues, the judge should have inquired about the nature of the unspecified "pressure" that had caused the juror to agree to find defendant guilty.

We begin by recognizing that the trial judge applied the proper standard to defendant's post-trial motion. That standard is one of "good cause," as set forth in R. 1:16-1:

Except by leave of court granted on good cause shown, no attorney or party shall directly, or through any investigator or other person acting for the attorney interview, examine, or question any grand or petit juror with respect to any matter relating to the case.

[R. 1:16-1.]

The Rule is designed to protect jurors from unwarranted disclosure of their deliberations, lest freedom of debate in the jury room be stifled and independence of thought be checked "'if jurors were made to feel that their arguments and ballots were to be freely published to the world.'" State v. LaFera, 42 N.J. 97, 106 (1964) (quoting Clark v. United States, 289 U.S. 1, 13, 53 S.Ct. 465, 469, 77 L.Ed. 993, 999 (1933)). As the trial judge aptly recognized, the law also seeks to "'promote the finality of jury verdicts'" by disfavoring efforts to summon jurors who have completed their service. State v. Bisaccia, 319 N.J. Super. 1, 18 (App. Div. 1999) (quoting State v. Harris, 156 N.J. 122, 154 (1998)).

The standard of good cause under R. 1:16-1 is therefore rigorous. A juror should not be called back for interrogation unless there is a "strong showing that a litigant may have been harmed by jury misconduct." State v. Athorn, 46 N.J. 247, 250, cert. denied, 384 U.S. 962, 86 S.Ct. 1589, 16 L.Ed. 2d 674 (1966); see also State v. Harris, 181 N.J. 391, 503 (2004), cert. denied, 545 U.S. 1145, 125 S.Ct. 2973, 162 L.Ed. 2d 898 (2005).

On the other hand, the standard for making inquiry is not insurmountable. As the State acknowledges, the court must conduct an appropriate investigation when there are indicia that jurors were improperly affected by outside influences in their consideration of a case. See Athorn, supra, 46 N.J. at 251-52; State v. Onysko, 226 N.J. Super. 599, 603 (App. Div. 1988); State v. Jasuilewicz, 205 N.J. Super. 558, 569 (App. Div. 1985), certif. denied, 103 N.J. 467 (1986).

For example, in State v. Grant, 254 N.J. Super. 571, 580 (App. Div. 1992), the court found it necessary to conduct post-verdict interviews after receiving a letter from a juror who reported that another deliberating juror had consulted with her husband, a corrections officer, about the significance of weapons found in the defendants' possession. Similarly, in Bisaccia, supra, 319 N.J. Super. at 7-12, we concluded that the trial court was obligated to interview the jury after receiving information from an excused juror that the jury had been discussing newspaper articles about the case in the jury room, and after receiving two notes during deliberations indicating that at least one of the jurors was in fear for his safety.

Here, we cannot tell from the limited record whether the "pressure" alluded to in T.S.'s telephone message to the judge's chambers stemmed from improper outside influences, or whether the juror was simply referring to forceful arguments that had been made in deliberations by other jurors about the merits of the prosecution's case. The latter kind of pressure would not provide sufficient cause to warrant juror interviews or other relief. See State v. Young, 181 N.J. Super. 463, 466-67 (App. Div. 1981), certif. denied, 91 N.J. 222 (1982) (holding that a juror's feeling of being pressured to return a verdict by other jurors who wanted to get back to work for fear of losing their jobs did not constitute "good cause" to conduct juror interviews under R. 1:16-1).

Under these particular circumstances, we believe that the most prudent course would have been for the trial judge to follow up with T.S. and have her clarify what she meant by her allusion to "pressure." Consequently, we remand the case for that purpose, so that the court may make an appropriate inquiry.*fn2

Depending upon the information that the judge obtains from T.S., additional interviews with the other deliberating jurors may be required. See State v. De Stefano, 339 N.J. Super. 153 (App. Div. 2001). We do not order that relief lightly. However, given the prior hung jury and the close nature of the competing proofs in this case, we are not comfortable in presuming that T.S.'s post-weekend report to the trial judge was inconsequential.

The matter is thus remanded for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion, which shall be completed within forty-five days. Pending those proceedings, defendant's conviction and sentence remain unaltered. Jurisdiction is not retained, without prejudice to either party seeking appellate review of any further determinations made on remand.

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