In In Re Scott Lee Peterson, SC055500A (Cal. Sup. Ct. Dec. 20, 2022), on remand from the California Supreme Court, the respondent was required to show cause why the petitioner should not be granted habeas corpus relief on the ground that he was deprived of his constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury because of a juror’s alleged concealment of bias during voir dire.
The petitioner argued that the juror committed misconduct by intentionally providing false answers in her jury questionnaire and that during jury selection, the juror concealed that when she was five months pregnant she sought and received a restraining order. The juror also failed to reveal an alleged domestic violence incident that occurred in 2001. The petitioner argued that the juror was biased because she wanted to sit in judgment of the petitioner in part to punish him for the crime of harming his unborn child and this bias was confirmed during deliberations. During deliberations, the juror was a holdout juror who strenuously argued that the killing of the unborn child was first-degree murder and referred to the unborn child as “Little Man.”
The San Mateo County Superior Court explained that the constitutional right to an impartial jury is violated even if only a single juror is biased. When a petitioner makes a claim of juror misconduct, the court conducts a two-step inquiry. First, the court determines if there was any juror misconduct. If the petitioner establishes juror misconduct by the preponderance of the evidence, prejudice is presumed. The prosecutor may rebut the presumption by showing that there is not a substantial likelihood that one or more jurors were actually biased against the defendant. This can be accomplished by an affirmative evidentiary showing that prejudice does not exist or by a reviewing court’s examination of the entire record to determine whether there is a reasonable probability of actual harm to the petitioner from the misconduct.
Juror misconduct includes the nondisclosure of facts that bear a substantial likelihood of uncovering a strong potential for juror bias. If the court finds that a juror had reason to anticipate the importance of their own experiences while completing the pretrial questionnaire or participating in voir dire, their nondisclosures may indicate an attempt to conceal them, which could in turn indicate juror bias. While a juror’s intentional concealment is strong proof of prejudice, it is not dispositive of actual bias. If unintentional concealment is caused by an honest mistake then it cannot disturb a judgment in the absence of proof that the juror’s wrong or incomplete answer hid the juror’s actual bias. Courts may find a non-disclosure inadvertent when a juror credibly provides a reason for the non-disclosure.
The Court found that the juror provided several false answers to her juror questionnaire. These false answers did not disclose a civil restraining order action in which the juror was the plaintiff/protected party while she was pregnant, a related civil case for money damages, or that the juror had witnessed a crime. However, the Court found that the responses were the result of a good faith misunderstanding of the questions and sloppiness in answering. The Court held that the respondent met its burden of showing that the juror was not biased against the petitioner.
The Court found the juror was credible and that her nondisclosures were honest mistakes. The Court stated that “far from being a traumatic life experience as painted by petitioner,” the incident involving the juror, her ex-boyfriend, and his ex-girlfriend, could “be described, for lack of a better word, as a love triangle.” The restrained party subject to the juror’s restraining order was the ex-girlfriend of the juror’s ex-boyfriend. The Court highlighted the fact that before seeking the restraining order, the juror contacted the ex-girlfriend and requested that she stop the harassing conduct. The Court reasoned that if an individual actually feared that another person would harm them or their unborn child, it is not reasonable for them to actively reach out to the other party to ask them to stop the conduct.
The Court also stated that the juror’s background needed to be considered in the context of how she viewed the ex-girlfriend’s conduct. The Court noted that the juror grew up in East Palo Alto, only had a high school education with limited training as a certified medical assistant, had a brother who served time in state prison for a drug offense, had four children with three different fathers, was never married, and at the time she appeared for jury duty, the juror had visible tattoos and her hair was dyed a bright pinkish-red color.
The petitioner argued that the juror’s application for the restraining order was a past statement that was inconsistent with the juror’s testimony that she was not in fear of the ex-girlfriend hurting her unborn child. In the application, the juror stated she was seeking the order because she was in fear for her unborn child. Evidence that a witness has lied under oath on another occasion is directly relevant to the witness’s credibility. However, the Court credited that juror’s admission of untruthfulness. The juror admitted she had been untruthful and sought the restraining order because she did not want to physically fight the ex-girlfriend and risk losing the baby and that she was being spiteful when she requested the restraining order.
The Court also credited the juror’s explanation that she did not disclose the civil lawsuit for money damages because, in her mind, she didn’t sue the ex-girlfriend since she asked the judge to drop the action and made amends outside the courthouse.
Although the juror’s ex-boyfriend pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge related to a purported domestic violence incident with the juror, the Court found that the juror was not a victim of domestic violence. The Court noted that the petitioner did not call the ex-boyfriend to testify, and therefore the record evidence was limited to the juror’s testimony, which the Court found credible. The juror testified that she hit her ex-boyfriend and was unaware of the charges or his plea. The Court noted that the incident occurred in East Palo Alto, the ex-boyfriend was a black man, and the juror appeared to be white. The Court pointed to the historical bias in policing and found it was not unreasonable that the ex-boyfriend pled rather than fight the charges given his complicated relationship with the juror and racial bias in the court system.
While there was evidence that the juror referred to the unborn child as “Little Man” in the jury room just after she was seated as a juror, she was immediately corrected and told that the jury had a process in place before she could give her opinion. The juror testified that she only formed her opinion after she heard all the evidence in the case and the record was clear that the juror continued to deliberate with other jurors before reaching the verdict.
The petitioner also argued that letters the juror sent to him after his conviction demonstrated bias because the letters revealed that the juror was obsessed with the unborn child and referenced men cheating. The Court found that the letters did not support the petitioner’s theory that the juror wanted to be on the jury to punish him or that she was fixated with the unborn child. Instead, the letters, at best, demonstrated that the juror was emotionally impacted by her participation in the trial.
The Court denied the petition for writ of habeas corpus.