Most people look for ways to avoid jury duty. But once you’re in, you’re in for the keeps, or so it should be in all but the most dire circumstances. It took the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to remind judges of that in a case in which one hold-out juror was yanked off during deliberations because of suspected bias. With the hold-out gone the other jurors quickly convicted Tara S. Williams of murder. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt used lines from the movie, “Twelve Angry Men” to remind courts that the hold-out juror is as important as every other member of the panel. He said removing the juror violated Williams right to a fair trial and, joined by two other judges, overturned Williams conviction. The case stems from the 1993 shooting of a liquor store owner during a robbery. But Williams did not pull the trigger, she waited in the car. She was arrested in 1998. She says she knew her friend Carde Taylor was armed but that they never planned to rob the store during daylight hours.
While Williams waited in the car, Taylor and another friend went into the store. After leaving, Taylor went back inside, emptied the cash register and shot the owner, according to the opinion.
Williams and Taylor were later convicted of murder in separate trials. She was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. The conviction came only after a juror, known to be a hold-out, was removed. The foreman had complained that one juror intended to “disregard the law” and that set off hours of questioning of jurors, even though they were in the midst of deliberations.
Her conviction was upheld through the state courts and the California Supreme Court declined to hear her appeal. She brought her federal appeal claiming a violation of her constitutional right to a fair trial.
Reinhardt said, in general, jurors may be removed during deliberations if they are ill or engage in misconduct. But in this case the juror appeared to be taken off the case because of his views about the merits of the case. And that violates the Constitution.
Williams must now either be re-tried by the state or freed, unless the state appeals the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Case: Williams v. Cavazos, No. 07-56127 (9th Circuit)