Verdict overturned because jurors consulted dictionaries
December 2, 2003
In a decision issued Monday, a unanimous three-judge appellate panel overturned the burglary and assault convictions of Seth S. Gladstone, Shannon Basil, Cassidy A. Roubideaux and Franklin Roubideaux Jr. in Whatcom County Superior Court.
The ruling voids a life prison term under the state's three-strikes law for Roubideaux Jr., who was previously convicted of robbery and vehicular homicide.
Jurors are routinely instructed to rely solely on what they hear and see in court and not to do their own investigating or attempt to determine the law from outside sources.
"In the rare instance where they break the rules where it matters, they have to reverse," said William John Crittenden, Roubideaux Jr.'s lawyer. "When the court says, 'Here's the definition of robbery and assault,' use that definition and don't go running off to Webster's."
Deputy prosecutor Royce Scott Buckingham said he might request reconsideration by the appeals court or appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
The case arose from a fight between Roubideaux Jr. and Rory Sullivan over Roubideaux Jr.'s relationship with Sullivan's sister in 2001. Testimony showed the four men kicked down the door of Sullivan's apartment, smashed windows and stabbed him .
In the fourth day of deliberations, a bailiff overheard two jurors say they had looked up "intent" and warned them not to tell the rest what they had learned. The bailiff later found a third already had told the others about looking up "burglary."
Both sides and the trial judge agreed that was jury misconduct, so under state law it was up to prosecutors to prove that the misconduct had not affected the verdict, Judge Anne L. Ellington wrote.
Ellington noted that the dictionary definitions differed from the legal definitions. The juror who looked up burglary told the others it was "the act or crime of breaking into a house at night with intent to commit a felony," she wrote.
"This suggested the jury could convict based only on intent to commit a felony," the panel agreed. "The jury reached its verdict only and almost immediately after resorting to these extrinsic definitions.
"Under these circumstances, the juror's misconduct was not shown to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt."
Since the verdict, Superior Court judges in Whatcom County have been instructing jurors not to consult dictionaries or the Internet about terms or issues of evidence, Buckingham said.
Even so, he argued that the juror's definition of burglary set a higher standard for conviction than the legal definition.
"It was ludicrous to reverse on this basis," Buckingham said. "It took weeks and five attorneys. The things that they looked up didn't change the outcome at all."
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