The Voir Dire – Part 9

The Responsibility of Judges

Do judges have any responsibility to comment or interrupt or notify the attorneys, or even to strike a venireperson on their own [which is called sua sponte, “of his own accord”] if they spot an irregularity during a jury voir dire?

Judge Hawes founded the Deep Springs chapter of CASA. He swore the representatives in, and Ronelle Wilcox was in his very first group of volunteers. She appeared in his court multiple times. He had to know that she had been a CASA representative. Shouldn’t he have said or done something? Steve covered that issue thoroughly in his 2018 habeas corpus writ. It was rejected by the courts because of something called the Rule of Laches, saying that Steve had waited too long to file the appeal.

I wondered if a judge has any legal obligation to report a venireperson when they knew that person wasn’t being truthful during voir dire. Here’s what Cleveland Sanford had to say about it. In our 2017 interview, I had just finished asking him about his CASA questions during voir dire, and about Wilcox hiding the knowledge from him, then I asked him to think about it from a judge’s perspective. Since he had a CASA organization in his own town, I asked him what he would do under similar circumstances, if he was presiding during jury voir dire, and a CASA question was asked, and he noticed that someone who was a CASA volunteer didn’t respond. Would he have any legal obligation to say something to the attorneys or to strike the venireperson on his own?

He said, “My gut is that, legally, you do not have any obligation. That’s just a gut instinct answer.” I told him I had posted a question about it on some online forums like Quora, and most of the answers had said that “legally a judge doesn’t have to, but…” He jumped in and said, “Morally …you know …I think morally …well, let me tell you this.” He told me a story about a woman who had been on a jury panel the week before. He knew she had worked for one of the two lawyers trying the case, but she was using a different last name. He didn’t know if she had perhaps been divorced and that was her maiden name, so he didn’t want to mention it in front of everybody unless he had to. He said, though, that the attorney who had been her employer immediately mentioned that she used to work for him. Sanford said, if that hadn’t happened “I would have called the attorneys up, because I would have felt a moral obligation to make sure that the other attorney knew, particularly when she used her maiden name on her card, because that made me think she’s trying to deceive to get on the jury.” She apparently wasn’t trying to do that, but Sanford felt that warning the opposing attorney would have been the right thing to do. He added, “That’s a scary thing because we do have people sometimes who are trying to get on juries.”

My score: Sanford 1, Hawes 0.

I hope it’s clear by now that, because of the combination of her long association with CASA, her personal association with one (or possibly two) of the expert witnesses, and because of her connection to Judge Hawes and the Ashwell County court system, Ronelle Wilcox should not have been allowed to be on Steve’s jury. Hiding that information during voir dire was likely a willful act, which could mean that she was intentionally trying to get on the jury for the purpose of manipulating it against the defense. Thanks to juror Emma Barrens’ testimony we know that someone on the jury came up with the idea of swapping votes (an illegal act) in order to obtain a specific verdict. Is it beyond the realm of possibility that Wilcox was the person who conceived the idea of trading votes, or at least helped that person convince the others to go along?

Judge Hawes, even if he had wanted to, once the verdict had been rendered, was restricted from using Ms. Barrens’ testimony to reverse Steve’s conviction thanks to Texas’ Rule of Evidence 606(b). Because of that rule, we can’t use what happened in the jury room as evidence. The rule will likely never be eliminated, although I think they should be modified to cover certain situations.

Since Ms. Wilcox’s statements and the background information on her and her association with CASA and the court system are all non-juror evidence, though, her qualifications to be a juror could have, I believe, have been attacked. That was the purpose of Steve’s writ, but the courts wouldn’t look at that evidence. They declared the writ invalid because too much time had passed before he filed it. Another way the courts manage to screw the innocent inmate.

Michael Sirois

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