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Massachusetts Supreme Court: Sleeping Juror Is “Structural Error,” Requires Intervention

by Dale Chappell

The Massachusetts Supreme Court reversed convictions for involuntary manslaughter and assault and battery and ordered a new trial because the trial judge failed to conduct voir dire after the prosecutor advised that some jurors fell asleep during trial.

Anthony Villalobos took his murder and assault charges to trial, hoping for a fair trial. Instead, he watched as the lawyers lulled at least two jurors to sleep. When the jury returned a guilty verdict, Villalobos appealed, raising the issue that jurors were asleep. The Appeals Court rejected his claim, and Villalobos took his case to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court determined that the prosecutor’s report to the trial judge that the jurors were sleeping should have prompted the judge to intervene. The judge, though, “simply observed” the jurors the rest of the trial to make sure nobody else fell asleep.

If a judge receives information that a juror is sleeping or is otherwise inattentive, and the judge determines that information is “reliable,” the high court explained that he “must take further steps to determine the appropriate intervention.” Typically, the next step is to conduct a voir dire, or interview, of the inattentive or sleeping juror to investigate whether that juror “remains capable of fulfilling his or her obligation to render a verdict based on all the evidence,” the Court explained. A voir dire is not always necessary, the Court said; a judge may instead decide to intervene without conducting a full voir dire.

But the judge must do something. In the present case, the prosecutor told the judge that one juror had fallen asleep “several times” during the testimony, and that another “was sound asleep” during cross-examinations. The judge took the prosecutor’s word as reliable, but still did not question the sleeping jurors to determine what evidence they may have missed.

When the prosecutor complained to the judge, “I think that both sides deserve to have jurors that are able to stay awake,” the judge responded, “but I have to notice it.” But the Supreme Court instructed that the judge’s impression that he had to witness the jurors sleeping was “mistaken.”

“On the contrary,” the Court clarified, “the receipt of reliable information from any source, not just the judge’s own observation, that a juror is sleeping requires prompt judicial intervention.” The judge’s belief that he lacked the ability to do anything other than observe the jurors “was itself an error of law,” the Court ruled.

The State argued that the jurors being asleep during trial was harmless. It argued that the sleeping jurors missed only “minimal and relatively inconsequential” parts of the trial.

The Court gave no weight to the State’s arguments. First, the record did not show one way or the other what the sleeping jurors did or did not miss, the Court said. The purpose of a voir dire is to look into what the sleeping juror might have missed. “Because the judge did not conduct a voir dire, we do not have these essential findings,” the Court pointed out.

Further, the judge’s response to the prosecutor’s reports about sleeping jurors “leaves us serious doubt that the defendant received the fair trial to which he is entitled,” the Court said. The possibility that a sleeping juror missed a significant portion of the trial is a “structural error and can never be considered harmless,” the Court stated.

 The Court likened Villalobos’ case to its recent decision in Commonwealth v. McGhee, 470 Mass. 638 (2015), in which the Court held that a judge’s failure to intervene after a report of a sleeping juror created “serious doubt” McGhee received a fair trial. The Court concluded Villalobos’ case was no different.

Thus, the Massachusetts Supreme Court reversed Villalobos’ convictions and remanded for a new trial.

See: Commonwealth v. Villalobos, 84 N.E.3d 841 (Mass. 2017). 


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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Villalobos



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