Articles Tagged with judge

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Recently, there have been a couple of criminal cases heard by the Georgia Supreme Court which have involved the trial judge’s inherent duty to be the final arbiter of fairness and justice in the courtroom. Sometime this is referred to as the “13th Juror,” because the trial judge sometimes must base her or his ultimate decision on the facts, testimony and documentary evidence presented at trial…things an appellate court would not be in a position to know.  A recent  discussion about the notion of the trial judge as 13th juror came in an appeal of a criminal case, State v. Hamilton, 832 S.E.2d 836  (Ga. Sup. Ct. September 3, 2019) in which the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral argument on the issue of whether the trial judge was authorized to  toss out three counts of assault when that the jury had convicted the defendant on, in the judge’s opinion, there was no way factually or legally for those three counts to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Court affirmed the trial court’s granting of a new trial.  “Having reviewed the entire record, and considering that the trial court was authorized, as the thirteenth juror, to discount Taylor’s and Hewatt’s testimony and to credit Hamilton’s story, and bearing in mind the standard of review set forth in OCGA § 5-5-50, we cannot say that the trial court’s conclusion was an abuse of its substantial discretion to grant Hamilton a new trial. See Hamilton, 299 Ga. at 670-671, 791 S.E.2d 51 (“An appellate court will not disturb the first grant of a new trial based on the general grounds unless the trial court abused its discretion in granting it and the law and the facts demand the verdict rendered.”).”

In another case recently argued before the Georgia Supreme Court, the Court told the Fulton County D.A., who was appealing a trial judge’s granting of a new trial, that the D.A. was “wasting the Court’s time” with such an appeal when the trial judge clearly has the power, right and, arguably, the duty, to grant a new trial. In that case, State v. Beard, NO. S19A0535 (Ga. Sup. Ct. October 31, 2019) quoted below, the Supreme Court’s opinion called the D.A.’s position “bizarre.”  “Contrary to the State’s bizarre argument, the jury’s verdict was not demanded by the “great physical laws of the universe.” (“An appellate court will not disturb the first grant of a new trial based on the general grounds unless the trial court abused its discretion in granting it and the law and the facts demand the verdict rendered.”).’

State v. Beard, S19A0535, 2019 WL 5656338, at 4 (Ga. Oct. 31, 2019). Since then, the Fulton County D.A.  dismissed its appeal and has vowed to take his argument to the Georgia Legislature in an attempt to get legislation passed that will eliminate this inherent duty and power of the trial judge.

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Recently, I was in a courtroom in Fulton County, Georgia watching a medical malpractice trial.  I was not involved in the trial; I was just a trialwatcher. When I have time, I still enjoy watching trials, both civil and criminal, for the real life drama on display. No movie or play can capture the sheer, raw emotion of a trial.  A jury’s decision can be life-altering. In a civil trial for money damages,  a verdict for the plaintiff can give the family of the injured person or decedent a sense of Justice and much needed closure. A verdict for the defendant can give a defendant a sense of vindication. The whole trial process is designed to find the truth. In fact, the word “verdict,” in Latin, means “to speak the truth.”

I have often seen normal laypeople who are testifying realize, on the stand, they have underestimated the emotional pressure that the formality of the courtroom imposes on them. There is something about the utter dignity and formality of the Courtroom, with the judge sitting high on the bench, with a court reporter taking down every word uttered, with 12 citizens sitting in judgment, with a Deputy Sheriff at the door, that brings the enormity of it all into crystallized focus. In this medical malpractice trial I was watching, there was a moment with one of the defendants on the witness stand when he simply broke down during his testimony. He began to tear up on the stand and the began to cry, and the plaintiff’s attorney quickly asked the judge for a break. But it was too late. The defendant began crying uncontrollably, and literally fell down on the floor from the weight of it all. His attorney had to go help get him off the floor and then out of the courtroom as the bailiff quickly took the jury back to the jury room. It was clear that the defendant had suffered something so strong emotionally that he could not go on. We were all worried about his mental well-being. I knew his attorney and knew he would make sure his client was supported emotionally and not left alone.  I believe his attorney was sincerely concerned about his client’s ability now to go on with the trial and meaningfully participate in the trial and assist his attorney. In speaking with several of the attorneys in the case, both plaintiff and defense, not one of us had ever seen something like that happen in a trial before.  Most of us had practiced for over 30 years. Meanwhile, the plaintiff’s attorney felt just as strongly that the defendant’s outburst of emotion directly in front of the jury was so overly prejudicial that the jury could not help but sympathize with the defendant, regardless of any instruction the judge might give to the contrary. Telling a jury they may have no sympathy for either side is easier said than done when a witness has just broken down in front of their eyes.  Discussion was had by all counsel with the judge in the judge’s chambers, and I was not privy to what they discussed and argued. Eventually, the defendant who had broken down on the stand reappeared in the courtroom. He looked shaken and seemed to be trembling. He was visibly trembling as he took sips out of a water bottle. There was no question in my mind that this was sincere and beyond his control. I felt empathy for him. After about an hour, though, the judge and all counsel came back into the courtroom and the jury was brought back into the courtroom. The judge declared a mistrial and thanked the jury for their work and instructed the jury they were no longer needed and that their jury duty had been fulfilled.

Wow.

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It seems to be in vogue with some trial judges currently to allow jurors to ask questions of witnesses after both sides of the litigation are finished asking their questions. This is currently a hot topic due to the Tex McIver trial, currently being tried in the Fulton County Superior Court in front of Judge Robert McBurney. Judge McBurney, rather famously, permits jurors to ask questions of witnesses after questioning by the prosecution and the defense counsel.  Presumably, Judge McBurney allows this practice in civil cases as well as criminal cases, although Superior Court doesn’t see as many civil cases as criminal.  All felonies in Georgia must be tried in Superior Court.  The practice of Judge McBurney allowing witnesses to ask their own questions was discussed extensively before the trial in a podcast produced by the AJC called Breakdown. It is hosted by veteran legal affairs journalist Bill Rankin and I highly recommend it.  In that podcast, defense counsel Bruce Harvey gives his opinion on why it is not only a bad practice to allow jurors to ask questions, but, also, why it is probably unconstitutional.  For example, we all know that the 5th Amendment of the Constitution gives a criminal defendant the right to remain silent, even throughout the trial, so that the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt without any assistance from the defendant. Harvey, rightfully, preposes the hypothetical of a juror asking “Why didn’t the defendant take the stand to tell us what happened?”  Of course, the judge is not going to permit that question to be answered, but the jurors (or at least the one juror who asked that question) will know the judge didn’t approve it and wouldn’t permit it to be answered, and the bias that answers “why” is naturally because the defendant must be guilty. So simply by denying that juror’s question, the 5th amendment constitutional right is implicated and violated because it was allowed even to be raised in court.

There has lately been alot of discussion in social media about this among lawyers, too.  You can find some of this discussion on Twitter at #texmciver and in the comments on Facebook where WSBTV is livestreaming the trial.  If I were to take a poll, I think the vast majority of trial lawyers is against the practice for the reasons stated above. Also, other websites are livestreaming the same WSBTV feed, like wildabouttrial and lawandcrime.   Both of these websites have a comments section where viewers can post their comments about the trial. It is pretty fascinating, especially for court enthusiasts like me.  On Facebook, there have been some thought-provoking comments about allowing jurors to ask questions of witnesses.  Below are just some of the comments I have seen:

“I think there are two questions that judges should ask themselves before considering this. 1). Why would I allow jurors to ask questions? Whatever the answer is (to help the jurors clarify any issues that the holder of the burden of proof has not clarified, etc). 2). If I am am being a neutral, unbiased referee, should that matter to me?”

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