Tuesday, February 23, 2016

State v. Amick

Opinion handed down June 16, 2015
Michael Amick appealed a judgment of conviction for second-degree murder and second-degree arson.[1]  The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the judgment and remanded the case, holding the trial court violated Missouri Revised Statutes Section 494.485 by substituting a discharged alternate juror after the jury already began its deliberations.[2]
I.  Facts and Holding 
Michael Amick was charged with first-degree murder and second-degree arson.[3]  At trial, the jury found Amick guilty of second-degree murder and second-degree arson.[4]  After the evidence was presented, but before jury deliberations began, the trial court excused Juror 14, an alternate juror.[5]  Juror 14 went home, and the jury deliberated for more than five hours before the trial court excused Juror 12 for health reasons.[6]  When Juror 12 was unable to continue service, the trial court instructed Juror 14 to return to the courthouse.[7]  Even after five hours of deliberations, the trial court substituted Juror 14 for Juror 12 and instructed the jury to continue deliberations.[8] 
Before substitution of Juror 12, “defense counsel requested a mistrial because: (1) Juror 14 could not get ‘caught up on what's been discussed’ after five hours of deliberation; and (2) it was possible she had discussed the case with someone after being released, even though she had denied any such discussions.”[9]  In the alternative, defense counsel requested the jury be dismissed for the weekend in order to allow Juror 12’s health to recover.[10]  The court overruled both of these motions and allowed the jury to continue deliberating.[11]  In less than an hour, the jury found Amick guilty of second-degree murder and second-degree arson.[12] 
The State contended that Amick improperly preserved his juror substitution argument by objecting to the procedure and including the claim in his motion for a new trial.[13]  The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed and remanded for a new trial, holding that: (1) Amick adequately preserved his argument for appellate review and (2) the substitution of an alternate juror for a juror more than five hours after the jury had begun deliberations and after the alternate had been discharged was reversible error.[14]
II.  Legal Background 
        “To preserve a claim of error, counsel must object with sufficient specificity to apprise the trial court of the grounds for the objection.”[15] 
The statute governing juror substitution, Section 494.485, provides:
If in any case to be tried before a jury it appears to the court to be appropriate, the court may direct that a number of jurors in addition to the regular jury be called and impaneled to sit as alternate jurors. Alternate jurors, in the order in which they are called, shall replace jurors who, prior to the time the jury retires to consider its verdict, become or are found to be unable or disqualified to perform their duties. Alternate jurors shall be selected in the same manner, shall have the same qualifications, shall be subject to the same examination and challenges, shall take the same oath and shall have the same functions, powers, facilities and privileges as the principal jurors. Alternate jurors who do not replace principal jurors shall be discharged after the jury retires to consider its verdict.[16]
III.  Instant Decision 
A.  Preservation
        The Supreme Court of Missouri held that Amick’s defense counsel objected with sufficient specificity to inform the trial court of the juror substitution issue.[17]  At the time the trial court proposed to substitute the two jurors, after more than five hours of deliberation, Amick’s defense counsel “requested a mistrial and specifically asserted that the proposed substitution would ‘create an enormous amount of error at this point’ and that ‘after five and a half or six hours of deliberation, we can't just throw somebody else into the ring.’”[18]  In addition, there is a presumption that trial judges know the law and correctly apply it.[19]  Because Amick’s counsel timely and unequivocally objected to a precise issue, the issue was sufficiently preserved for appeal.[20]
B.  Juror Substitution
Amick argued the trial court’s failure to sustain the objection and refusal to grant a new trial violated Section 494.485, as well as his due process right to a fair trial.[21]  The court proceeded to analyze the issue solely under the statute, rather than the constitution.[22]  The court derived two requirements from the statute.[23]  Because alternate jurors shallreplace jurors prior to the time the jury retires to consider its verdict, “once the jury begins to deliberate, the trial court cannot substitute one juror for another.”[24]  Secondly, because “after the jury retires to consider its verdict, the alternate jurors who did not replace a principal juror are ‘discharged,’ . . . once the jury retires for deliberation, the alternate juror is discharged and is no longer part of the jury.”[25]  The court held that Section 494.485 prohibits a juror substitution after the jury begins to deliberate.[26]  Thus, the trial court erred by substituting a discharged alternate juror after deliberations had already begun.[27]
IV.  Comment 
The court undoubtedly decided this case correctly.  If the court allowed the juror substitution, more than five hours after deliberations began, the consequences of that precedent would have been devastating.  Adding a juror after deliberations begin would destroy the efficiency of the deliberation process.  Catching a late juror up to speed would not only delay the deliberation process, it could also potentially substantively distract the other jurors.  Furthermore, it would increase the possibility of juror misconduct via improper communication.  All of these consequences were properly avoided by holding that juror substitution is not allowed once the jury begins deliberations.
- Nick Griebel

[1] State v. Amick, 462 S.W.3d 413, 414 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8]  Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 414-15.
[13] Id. at 415.  
[14] Id.
[16] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 494.485 (Cum. Supp. 2013) (emphasis added).
[17] 462 S.W.3d at 415.
[18] Id. at 415.
[19] Id.
[20] Id.
[21] Id.
[22] Id.
[23] Id. at 416.
[24] Id.
[25] Id.   See also State v. Bobo, 814 S.W.2d 353, 355 (Tenn. 1991) (stating a court rule requiring the alternate juror to be discharged when the jury retires to consider its verdict means that the discharged alternate is no longer a member of the jury, because the function of the alternate juror ceases when the jury commences deliberations).
[26] 462 S.W.3d at 416.
[27] Id.