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City of Seattle v. Washington

May 5, 1997


Appeal from Superior Court of King County. Docket No: 94-1-06807-1. Date filed: 05/28/96. Judge signing: Hon. Jo Anne Alumbaugh.

PER CURIAM. On RALJ appeal, the Superior Court reversed Walter Washington's conviction in Seattle Municipal Court for assault, ruling that juror misunderstanding of the instructions on self-defense constituted an "error of law" requiring a new trial. A commissioner granted the City's motion for discretionary review, and the parties have stipulated to resolution of the appeal on the basis of the existing briefs.

Because any juror misunderstanding of the court's instructions inhered in the verdict, and because the trial court did not otherwise improperly influence the verdict, the Superior Court erred in ordering a new trial. Accordingly, we reverse the RALJ decision and remand for reinstatement of the verdict.

Washington was charged with assaulting his ex-wife Valena Washington. According to Valena, Washington climbed up onto the balcony and entered her apartment during the afternoon of July 22, 1994. After displaying a knife, he announced that he was going to kill her by slitting her throat. Valena maintained that Washington had essentially held her captive throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening. She had no telephone in her apartment and was unable to call the police.

At one point, the couple walked to a nearby store together to purchase some beer. Later in the evening, they went to a restaurant for dinner. When the restaurant turned out to be closed, they started walking to a second restaurant. As the couple passed, some men on the street started "cat-calling" at Valena. When Valena began laughing at the absurdity of the situation, Washington "socked" her in the head. In response, Valena kicked Washington, who then punched her in the nose, causing her to fall to the ground. Valena felt "like I was drowning in my own blood" and began crawling toward the emergency room of a nearby hospital, where she was treated for her injuries and reported the assault.

Valena conceded that the couple had a history of domestic violence prior to their divorce, including incidents in which she had hurled a rice cooker on Washington's head and stabbed him with a scalpel. In each case, she maintained that she had been acting in self-defense. At the time of her testimony, Valena was awaiting trial on an assault charge for stabbing Washington in the thigh with a butcher knife.

Washington testified that he had come over to the apartment at his ex-wife's invitation and that she had voluntarily let him in. According to Washington, the two did a number of things together during the course of the afternoon and evening and were getting on well, although Valena was drinking heavily. As they were walking to the second restaurant, however, Valena's demeanor changed and she began yelling obscenities at him. When she suddenly ran up to him and kicked him in the groin, Washington pushed her to the ground. Valena repeatedly got up and began kicking and hitting Washington. Each time, Washington pushed her back to the ground. Finally, when she got up and began assaulting him again, Washington hit her in the nose and left.

The jury, which was instructed on Washington's claim that he acted in self-defense, found Washington guilty as charged. When the jury was polled, juror Dugan first stated that the verdict was the unanimous verdict of the jury, but expressed some confusion about the status of his individual verdict. He seemed to indicate that in his opinion the State had not proved the absence of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. The 5 remaining jurors all stated that the verdict was the unanimous verdict of the jury and their individual verdict. After conferring with counsel, the trial court orally directed the jury to continue deliberations. A short time later, when juror Dugan apparently told the bailiff that he may have misunderstood the court's first question, the court, with the consent of both parties, again directed the jury continue deliberations.

Following further deliberations, the jury found Washington guilty as charged. The entry of the verdict and final jury poll are not part of the record. At sentencing, which followed immediately after the verdict, Washington moved for arrest of judgment and a new trial. The motion was based on an affidavit signed by 4 of the jurors stating their belief that the court's instructions had placed the burden on the defendant to prove self-defense. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that any misunderstanding of the instructions inhered in the verdict. On RALJ appeal, the superior court reversed, ruling that the jurors' misunderstanding constituted an "error of law" that required a new trial.

The City correctly contends that the Superior Court erred in reversing Washington's conviction on the basis of the jurors' affidavit. It is well established that matters inhering in the verdict may not be used as a basis for granting a new trial:

The mental processes by which individual jurors reached their respective Conclusions, their motives in arriving at their verdicts, the effect the evidence may have had upon the jurors or the weight particular jurors may have given to particular evidence, or the jurors' intentions and beliefs, are all factors inhering in the jury's processes in arriving at its verdict, and, therefore, inhere in the verdict itself, and averments concerning them are inadmissible to impeach the verdict. State v. Jackman, 113 Wash. 2d 772, 777-78, 783 P.2d 580 (1989) (quoting Cox v. Charles Wright Academy, Inc., 70 Wash. 2d 173, 179-80, 422 P.2d 515 (1967)). A juror's misunderstanding of the court's instructions is a matter that inheres in the verdict. Gardner v. Malone, 60 Wash. 2d 836, 841, 376 P.2d 651, 379 P.2d 918 (1962).

In this case, the affidavit relied upon by the Superior Court recited that 4 jurors had misunderstood the court's instructions setting forth the burden of proof on the issue of self-defense. The affidavit and defense counsel's declaration summarizing his post-verdict Discussion with jurors clearly involved the mental process by which the jurors reached their decision. Accordingly, any juror misunderstanding or misapplication of the court's instructions inhered in the verdict, and the Superior Court erred in ordering a new trial on this basis. See State v. Jackman, 114 Wash. 2d at 777 (affidavit suggesting jurors improperly shortened deliberations could not be used to impeach verdict); State v. Standifer, 48 Wash. App. 121, 737 P.2d 1308, review denied, 108 Wash. 2d 1035 (1987) (trial court erred in granting new trial on basis of juror's letter expressing reasonable doubt about defendant's guilt); State v. McKenzie, 56 Wash. 2d 897, 355 P.2d 834 (1960) (trial court erred in considering juror affidavit stating that one juror had argued law contrary to instructions); State v. Young, 48 Wash. App. 406, 739 P.2d 1170 (1987) (juror affidavits expressing confusion about meaning of court's instructions reflected thought process and could not be used to impeach verdict); State v. Duhaime, 29 Wash. App. 842, 631 P.2d 964, review denied, 97 Wash. 2d 1009 (1981) (affidavit of juror who sought to rescind vote in guilt phase of death penalty case reflected thought process and therefore could not be used to impeach verdict); State v. Whipple, 124 Wash. 578, 215 P. 14 (1923) (affidavit indicating that 3 jurors misunderstood court's instructions and consented to verdict because of misunderstanding could not be used to impeach verdict).

Washington suggests that the general rule regarding the consideration of juror affidavits should not apply under the facts of this case because the trial court had become aware of a potential problem prior to entry of the verdict, during the course of polling the jury. None of the cited authority supports such a proposition. The issue therefore becomes whether the trial court's response to the initial jury poll provides an alternative basis for a new trial.

Washington argues that the trial court's instructions to the jury to continue deliberations in the face of juror Dugan's equivocal response improperly coerced a minority juror into accepting the verdict. Nothing in the record suggests that this argument was raised in Washington's motion for a new trial or on RALJ appeal. Moreover, the record fails to support Washington's assertion of a coercive atmosphere.

When confronted with the juror's equivocal statements during the course of the initial jury poll, the trial court had discretion to declare a mistrial or direct the jury to continue deliberations. CrRLJ 6.16(a)(3). Although the trial court may make limited inquiries to ascertain the jury's position, the court must make every effort to avoid coercing or interfering with the deliberative process. State v. Boogaard, 90 Wash. 2d 733, 736, 585 P.2d 789 (1978). In order to prevail, "a defendant must establish a reasonably substantial possibility ...

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