Every accused person has a constitutional right to a trial by jury.
On the federal level, the constitutional right to a jury trial comes from the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It states that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury….” On the state level, that right comes from Article 1, Section 24, of the North Carolina Constitution. It states that “[n]o person shall be convicted of any crime but by the unanimous verdict of a jury in open court….”
He or she does not, however, necessarily have a right to a trial by awake jurors. At least that’s what the Court of Appeals held in an opinion released earlier this week.
The juror allegedly fell asleep during the defense’s presentation of evidence
A jury convicted Jeron Gavin French of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, inflicting serious injury. But, during trial, one of the jurors allegedly fell asleep while defense counsel played bodycam footage. According to defense counsel, the juror “appeared to be asleep ‘during the majority of the video.’ ” Asserting that the sleeping juror deprived him of his right to a jury trial, French moved for a new trial.
Person County Superior Court Judge James E. Hardin Jr. denied French’s motion. According to Judge Hardin, he observed the juror “beginning to doze.” So, he stepped in and fixed “the situation at the time by asking all the jurors to stand up.”
But the NC Court of Appeals affirmed, relying on past cases involving “the issue of the sleeping juror.”
On appeal, French sought a new trial because Judge Hardin erred “by allowing the allegedly sleeping juror to remain on the jury without further inquiry.” But the North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected his argument. In doing so, the Court first recognized that North Carolina’s “courts have previously addressed the issue of the sleeping juror, and these decisions control our analysis….”
The first case decided in 1995, involved a juror who “seemed inattentive but had not been sleeping.” The second case, decided in 2007, involved “a juror who appeared to be sleeping” but “immediately respsond[ed] that he was” “alright” when asked. In both, the trial courts decided that the juror could resolve the case, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
The Court of Appeals did the same in French’s appeal in its opinion issued on Tuesday. “In this case, it was within the trial court’s discretion to decide whether Juror 11 could still competently perform her duties as a juror or whether she should be excused, based on the observation of Defendant’s counsel that Juror 11 appeared to be asleep during a majority of the bodycam video footage,” the Court said. Because he “relied upon its own observation of Juror 11 to conclude Juror 11 could continue to competency serve as a fair and impartial juror, requiring no further inquiry,” the Court of Appeals concluded that Judge Hardin exercised his discretion appropriately.
Does a sleeping juror really satisfy the constitutional right to a trial by jury?
Does a sleeping juror really satisfy the constitutional right to a trial by jury? Reasonable minds might answer that question differently. For some, a sleeping juror—even an allegedly sleeping one—is a huge problem on a constitutional level. For others, it’s probably not necessary to uproot a unanimous jury conviction just because one juror was purportedly sleeping.
As we’ve seen, there are problems with the jury-trial process in North Carolina to begin with. And, nationwide, the number of people called for jury decreases each year. And it’s hard not to wonder whether something needs to change. After all, if you’re counting on 12 strangers to decide your fate, are you okay with them dozing off?