Trial judge’s coercion of jury to reach criminal verdict: BELL v. COM. (SC 2/21/2008)

CRIMINAL:  Trial Court Coercion
DATE RENDERED: 2/21/2008

SC reversed Bell’s convictions for five counts of sexual abuse in the first-degree and one count of sodomy in the first-degree due to coercion by the trial court (TC). TC’s behavior and actions during the jury’s deliberations were improper and unduly coercive. The circumstances of the deliberations in no way justified delivery of an Allen charge. There was no cause for concern that the jury was deadlocked after less than five hours of deliberation. The evidence against Bell was not overwhelming – it was virtually a "he said, she said" type of case. A reasonable juror would have gotten the clear message from the TC that it was "time for a verdict."

It was harmless error for the TC to deliver multiple instructions that failed to distinguish in some fashion each incident of rape, sexual abuse, or sodomy. Further, on retrial, the testimony of the investigating social worker must exclude her characterizations of the victim’s statement and demeanor.

Digested by Scott C. Byrd

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