When the black box is opened


Juries are often likened to the black box. You know stuff goes in and you know stuff comes out. What happens inside the box, however, is a mystery. People can guess, people can opine (some make careers out of it), but you never really know how a jury is going to behave. Until one of them speaks out, that is.

This unfortunate tale comes from New York, where, after verdict, a juror spoke up and revealed that they misunderstood the judge’s instructions.

The anonymous juror contended that at least six others on the 12-member jury would have found Joseph Cammarano not guilty of gang assault if they had understood the charge properly.

Justice Robert J. Collini had instructed jurors to find Cammarano, 18, guilty of gang assault only if they determined he had stabbed 14-year-old Richard Orloski.

The juror claimed the panel mistook the charge to mean Cammarano should be found guilty of gang assault if they believed he had participated in the Dongan Hills playground melee, regardless of whether he stabbed Orloski.

“We never intended to find (Cammarano) responsible for Richard Orloski’s stabbing, period,” the juror contended.

Part of the cause of this problem is the discretion of judges to permit note taking during trials. This judge did not allow it. The jury didn’t have a written copy of his charge available during deliberations, but requested a read-back of his orders on how to apply the charge in their verdict.

Collini reread his charge on gang assault, and also repeated instructions on three additional charges.

“We had several things read back to us. It was confusing,” the juror contended, claiming that on their return to the jury room, the panelists were still unclear about how to interpret Cammarano’s role in a brawl involving 30 youths in the playground next to PS 52 on Feb. 4, 2006.

I have never understood why note-taking is not permitted during trials. With so much at stake, wouldn’t the interests of justice be best served by the jury accurately remembering the testimony? Memories are faulty, so shouldn’t we aid in their recollection by at least permitting them to take notes? What is this resistance to taking notes?

That’s not all, though. This jury exhibited the classic symptoms of a jury that just wanted to go home:

Describing the atmosphere behind closed doors as including “a lot of cursing and arguing,” the juror claimed the panel was “absolutely split down the middle” as to whether Cammarano stabbed Orloski.

After deliberations began, another member “refused to spend another day” and threatened to hang up the entire panel and force a mistrial if they had to come back on Friday, according to the anonymous juror.

While he was correctly convicted on other counts (and therefore his total exposure doesn’t change much), we still have a man who was convicted of something he shouldn’t have been. That’s unacceptable.

H/T: Indefensible

Update: Scott notes the most obvious downside of juries taking notes: They don’t pay attention to what is currently being said. I don’t think this is as big a problem as he makes it out to be – super juror and what not – and can be rectified with a simple jury instruction. The notes are to assist in recall and should be treated as such. He also points out that notes aren’t perfect and we have a system of perfect recall: reading back the testimony. Sure, that may work in some cases, where the information the jury is seeking is a large part of the case and they are constantly reminded of it. But what of something that seems minor, but could be pivotal? If they don’t have notes to remind them, how will they know what to have read back?

At the very least, the jury should have a copy of the charge.

7 thoughts on “When the black box is opened

  1. Steve

    Interesting point about jury note-taking. In our jurisdiction, it is allowed unless either party objects. And, practically speaking, it is nearly always the defense that objects. In fact, the only occasions where I have seen the defense NOT object has been in cases where the defense anticipates significantly inconsistent statements.

  2. Mark from Jersey

    My problem with note-taking, is that a jury is not a court reporter, with the task of recording testimony. Notes can be biased, selective, taken out of context, prone to error, and may be given greater weight than deliberations themselves.

    On the other hand, transcribed sections of testimony and the written text of the statutes, including definitions created by the legislature, should be allowed.

    So should notes that act as a memory aid, in order for jurors to highlight information that they each find important, even if it is a hard-to-remember detail. Notes like this are typically taken away before deliberation. (Like in school, you can take all the notes you want, but you can’t use them on the test).

    I don’t know what Connecticut currently allows, but if I was a juror I would want that.

  3. nitecirinso lou

    I am sure he was wrongfully convicted and I am sure you have no idea what your talking about. So basically, you shouldn’t make any comment. Cammarano should have never been convicted. It was a rushed and decieved trial.

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