Thursday, November 10, 2005

Decision Day: October, 2005 Term

There are some interesting decisions in the Fourth Department's October, 2005 packet. I am still sifting through the opinions, and will post on the more interesting ones over the next few days. But for tonight, rest assured that the trend of reversals based on error during jury selection continues this term with People v Harris (KA 03-00404,[available here). In Harris, a prospective juror "indicated that her assessment of defendant's guilt would be influenced by the number of complainants, thus raising an issue concerning her ability to be fair and impartial." (Id.) At that point, it was "necessary to obtain her unequivocal assurance that her prior state of mind would not influence the verdict and that she would render an impartial verdict based solely on the evidence." (Id.) The prospective juror never gave such an assurance, and therefore the Court held "the denial of defendant's challenge for cause thus constitutes reversible error inasmuch as defendant had exhausted all of his peremptory challenges before the completion of jury selection." (Id.)

Another interesting wrinkle from Harris--the Court also reversed "based on the court's improper curtailment of defense counsel's questioning of prospective jurors with respect to their ability to follow the court's instructions on the limited use of Molineux evidence." (Id.) This is surprising, only because, as the Court notes, a trial court enjoys "broad discretion in controlling and restricting the scope of voir dire," and appellate courts usually do not second-guess an exercise of discretion. (Id.) That the Fourth Department saw fit in this case to set an outer boundary on a trial judge's discretion during voir dire is a welcome development.