Patricia Sylvester may have learned the ultimate lesson of “never ask a question in trial that you do not know the answer to.” Sylvester, 49, was overjoyed when a jury came back with a “not guilty” to vehicular assault in Island County Superior Court in Washington. While she cried with joy, Judge Alan Hancock polled the jury only to have one woman say that she didn’t agree with the “not guilty” verdict. He sent the jury back to voted again. By the time they had returned, they had convicted Sylvester.
I have serious reservations about this process since this “second bite at the apple” could have been influenced by the reaction in the courtroom and the defendant’s reaction. Sylvester was charged after an accident in 2008 that left a man with a collapsed lung and three fractured ribs. She was driving a 1996 Acura when she braked to avoid a car and lost control of her car. He hit a Subaru driven by Michael Nichols.
The jury still found her not guilty of the offense of committing vehicular assault while intoxicated.
There are some reports indicating that the holdout juror was consistent in her voting and that the jury misunderstood a jury instruction regarding the necessity of a unanimous decision. I am not sure how “unanimous” is ambiguous but they believed that every vote was not needed for a not guilty verdict.
In their defense, they had sent questions about the unanimous verdict requirement, but obviously remained confused.
Jurors said that, when the judge sent them back, they looked more seriously at the evidence and found guilty.
It is hardly comforting that they took the time to look more seriously at the evidence after the verdict was announced. The defendant’s reaction and that of the courtroom could have influenced their response. It is true that a judge will often tell a divided jury to continue their deliberations. However, this is a materially different matter when the jury has been called to publicly identify their votes in open court. It seems to me that the earlier divided vote was an accurate tally and, if the court was not going to accept the not guilty verdict (which is understandable), a mistrial would be in order.
This case shows why lawyers need to ask for a polling of the jury if a court does not do so automatically — when you are on the losing side. However, in this case, Sylvester’s attorney reportedly asked for the polling. I am not sure why you would want to poll a not guilty jury. The attorney may have suspected a division and wanted to put the matter to rest for appeal. Yet, it was a gamble for the same reason that cost the client dearly.
It is not malpractice to do so. Such matters are treated as matters of discretionary tactics.
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