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New Jersey Supreme Court: Juror Excused After Partial Verdict Requires Mistrial on Remaining Counts

The case came before the Court when Antwan Horton took his charges for murder, attempted murder, and weapons offenses to trial, and one of the jurors was excused to go on a preplanned vacation. That juror had been part of the deliberations when the jury reached a verdict on some of the counts.

Instead of accepting the partial verdict, the trial judge merely excused the juror and then reconstituted a new jury to take over and reach a full verdict. The judge instructed the jury to discard the partial verdict and begin deliberations anew. Horton moved for a mistrial, but the trial court denied that motion. Three days later, he was found guilty by a unanimous jury of all the counts.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, speculating that the substituted juror was a “full participant in the mutual exchange of ideas.” The court cited that the jury had requested transcripts, asked for testimony to be repeated, and asked additional questions before returning its verdict.

The Supreme Court didn’t agree. “We have rich and fulsome jurisprudence on the issue of juror substitution in the face of a jury having reached a partial verdict,” the Court admonished. “Quite simply, substitution is impermissible. The proper course is for the trial court to take a partial verdict and declare a mistrial on the open counts,” the Court instructed.

The Supreme Court has held that “when the circumstances suggest a strong inference that the jury has affirmatively reached a determination on one or more factual or legal issues the trial court should not substitute an alternate for an excused juror.” State v. Ross, 93 A.3d 739 (N.J. 2014). Additionally, the Supreme Court has held that the failure to abide by this rule is “plain error.” State v. Corsaro, 526 A.2d 1046 (N.J. 1987).

The Court explained: “We cannot know whether the jury will start anew with the entry of a substitute juror and discard their views simply because there is a new juror amongst them. Nor can we know if the new juror will exercise independence or simply go along with the opinions of the existing jurors. We cannot know or speculate whether the replacement juror was a full participant in the mutual exchange of ideas.” The “safest and fairest course,” the Court reiterated, is to take a partial verdict and declare a mistrial on the open counts.

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Related legal case

State v. Horton



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