On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Indictment No. 06-01-0121.
The first jury to try defendant Jose Negrete on charges related to the killing of Jeri Lynn Dotson and the attempted killing of Alex Ruiz was unable to reach a verdict. A second jury found defendant guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3; attempted murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1 and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3; and murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(2). After merging defendant's conspiracy conviction, the judge sentenced him to a life term of imprisonment for murder and a consecutive twenty-year term for attempted murder. Both sentences are subject to terms of parole ineligibility and supervision required by the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2. The judge also imposed the appropriate monetary penalties.
Defendant appeals urging reversal of his convictions on four grounds and, in the alternative, contends that his sentences are excessive and should be concurrent. The most significant question is whether Juror Number 8's (Juror 8) participation in deliberations requires reversal of his convictions. Because Juror 8 disclosed information about his relationship with a witness, in violation of the judge's direction, and disclosed information he had heard about the crime scene prior to trial that was not introduced in evidence, in violation of the jury instructions, we conclude that it does.
[At the court's direction, its recitation and discussion of Section I has been omitted from the published opinion.]
Defendant's claim of juror misconduct is based on disclosures Juror 8 made in deliberations. Specifically, Juror 8 told the other jurors that he went to school with Peralta and knew him from the neighborhood; that his girlfriend Mimi was friendly with Peralta's sisters who took care of Dotson's children; and that Peralta's sister told Mimi that one of Dotson's daughters said she put the candy on her mother's stomach. The other jurors were concerned by the fact that Juror 8 was on the jury despite knowing Dimas Peralta, the father of Dotson's children, and by the fact that Juror 8 had disclosed facts not in evidence. Consequently, they sent a note to the judge asking for guidance.
The judge and the attorneys already knew that Juror 8 knew Peralta. During jury selection, Juror 8 came to sidebar and advised the judge and lawyers of his acquaintance with Peralta. At that time, Juror 8 said they were in the same school years before, but he also said he had not seen Peralta for a long time and did not consider Peralta a friend. Juror 8 was confident that he could decide the case without being influenced by their relationship. The judge told Juror 8 not to disclose his relationship with Peralta to the other jurors, and Juror 8 said he would not. Apparently convinced that Juror 8 could serve, neither the judge nor the attorneys took any action to remove him.
Deliberations commenced after the lunch break on May 13, 2009. The record does not indicate whether the jury sent the note about Juror 8 before leaving the court house on May 13 or after resuming deliberations on May 14. The only transcript from May 14 we have, begins with the judge questioning the foreperson about the note they sent. It states, "[Juror 8] has expressed knowing and going to school with Dimas [Peralta], the father of Jeri Lynn Dotson['s children]. And has expressed information about [Dotson] that was not brought up in the trial. Please advise us as to how to proceed."
While the jurors' had differing recollections of what Juror 8 said and not all of them heard everything, Juror 8's recollection was precise, and he did not omit anything the others attributed to him. The judge started her colloquy with Juror 8 by reading the note and reminding him that he had said he would keep that information to himself. Acknowledging his vow, Juror 8 said he told the others "about how the candy got in [sic] her stomach, " which he said was "what we were discussing." Asked about how and when he acquired information about the candy, Juror 8 said, "I believe I told you that my kids' mother[— Mimi —]was friends with Dimas' sisters. And when the murder happened [Mimi] came to me and told me, you know, this happened to Dimas you know." As Juror 8 recalled what Mimi told him, it was that "[Peralta's sister] had talked to the little girl or whatever, and the little girl told her that she had placed the candy on her."
Juror 8 admitted, "I told [the other jurors] that Mimi knew the, the kids' aunt[s], and that they had told her that the little girl placed the candy, and then everybody said, well, that wasn't in the trial. We should ask the judge the question. Can we proceed[?]" Juror 8 said he told the other jurors about going to school with Dimas because they asked how he knew "the aunt and stuff."
After speaking with Juror 8, the judge interviewed each juror individually, in the presence of counsel. The judge's questions were properly phrased to avoid eliciting information about the deliberative process and discover any information disclosed by Juror 8 that was not presented at trial. Indeed, through a first round of questioning on May 14, the judge learned that someone had mentioned hearing that defendant's bail was set at two million dollars during deliberations. That disclosure prompted a second round of individual questioning on the next day the jury convened, May 18. During their individual interviews, six jurors recalled hearing about the bail and four said Juror 8 was the person who mentioned it. All of the jurors maintained that they remained able to decide the case fairly and impartially on the evidence adduced at trial. Juror 8 denied hearing about or mentioning the bail.
The judge stated her findings and conclusions on the errant juror's disclosures on May 18. Crediting Juror 8's account of the context in which he discussed the candy with the other jurors, she found that none of his disclosures were malicious or driven by personal agenda, and she determined that Juror 8 understood that he could not make any further disclosures and must decide the case based solely on the evidence.
Findings based upon a judge's assessment of a juror's testimony and feel of the case generally are entitled to deference. State v. R.D., 169 N.J. 551, 560 (2001). In this case, however, it was error to rely upon Juror 8's profession of his ability to decide the case solely on the evidence adduced at trial and the judge's instructions on the law, which is what a juror must do. Id . at 557-59. Juror 8 had demonstrated his inability or unwillingness to do either. In disregard of personal direction from the judge and the jury instructions at the close of case, during deliberations Juror 8 had disclosed his relationship with Peralta and what he heard about the candy, thereby supplementing the evidence introduced at trial and contradicting defense counsel's closing argument. Moreover, Juror 8 had failed to disclose Mimi's link with Peralta's sisters and Dotson's children during jury selection. Had he done so, his dismissal for cause before the jury was sworn would have been required.
A trial judge "should see to it that the jury is as nearly impartial as the lot of humanity will admit." State v. Deatore, 70 N.J. 100, 106 (1976) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Performance of that obligation requires distinguishing "potential jurors who are able to put their opinions or prior knowledge aside from those who are unable to, " in order to select a jury consisting of twelve jurors who are each able to decide the case based on the evidence and the law. State v. Williams, 113 N.J. 393, 429 (1988).
Juror 8's mid-deliberation disclosures made it apparent that he was not qualified to sit. He could not segregate what he had heard about the crime prior to trial from the evidence presented at trial and could not follow the judge's direction for him to refrain from disclosing his relationship with Peralta or the general instructions directing all jurors to consider nothing but the evidence.
In this circumstance, reliance on Juror 8's representation was an abuse of discretion. Indeed, reliance on Juror 8's representation would have been ill-advised even if he disclosed nothing other than the relationship between Mimi and the aunts of Dotson's surviving children who cared for them. Disclaimers of partiality by one who has a relationship with the victim or the victim's family members are inadequate because they are contrary to human nature. See State v. Fortin, 178 N.J. 540, 629 (2004) (noting, on that reasoning, that it is "ill-advised, as a general rule, to seat any juror who is acquainted with a murder victim's loved ones"); Deatore, supra, 70 N.J. at 106 (on the same reasoning, suggesting that judges excuse, with consent of the attorneys, a prospective juror acquainted with a victim or a witness without questioning about partiality).
For all of the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the judge erred in allowing Juror 8 to continue participation after learning about his misconduct.
With respect to the impact of Juror 8's disclosures on the other jurors, the judge found that their concern about Juror 8 being on the panel and knowing Peralta was eliminated when they were informed that he had told the judge and the lawyers about their acquaintance before the jury was impaneled. The judge also determined that the information about defendant's bail had no capacity to prejudice the jury because she had instructed them to disregard any evidence concerning defendant's ability to make bail.
Our disagreement is not with findings, the problem is that it was error to rely on the jurors' professions of ability to serve no matter how sincere. "When a jury is exposed to extraneous information after deliberations have begun, a mistrial will almost always be required." State v. Hightower, 146 N.J. 239, 264 (1996); see, e.g., State v. Kociolek, 20 N.J. 92, 96-97 (1955) (reversing a conviction returned by jurors who learned about the defendant's prior indictment for assault and battery despite the fact that the trial court directed them to render a verdict based only upon the trial evidence). Moreover, where the jury is exposed to information not in evidence, the first question is whether the information "could have a tendency to influence the jury in arriving at ...