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Michigan Supreme Court Vacates Jury Tampering Conviction For Man Distributing Pamphlets To Prospective Jurors Outside Of Courthouse

 

On July 28, 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v Wood, __ Mich __ ; __ NW2d __ (2020)(Docket No. 159063) and vacated the defendant’s conviction for jury tampering because he had not actually attempted influence “jurors” as defined under Michigan law.

MCL 750.120a(1) states that “[a] person who willfully attempts to influence the decision of a juror in any case by argument or persuasion, other than as part of the proceedings in open court in the trial of the case, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than $1,000.00, or both.”

Andrew Yoder, an Amish man, was indicted for violating environmental regulations and was scheduled to stand trial in the 77th District Court in Mecosta County, Michigan.  Keith Woods became interested in the case after hearing about it through email.  He did not know Mr. Yoder personally or have any contact with him.  Mr. Woods was also interested in the concept of “jury nullification”, which is the ability of a jury to acquit an individual even if it finds that he or she was actually guilty of violating the law beyond a reasonable doubt.  On the morning of Mr. Yoder’s trial, Mr. Woods showed up to the courthouse entrance and began distributing pamphlets – entitled “Your Jury Rights: True or False?” – that promoted jury nullification.  When asked why he was handing out pamphlets that morning, Mr. Woods said that he “believed that there were going to be a lot of people around the courthouse and it was going to give [him] a really good opportunity to educate” them, but that he had no personal interest in the outcome of Mr. Yoder’s case.  Mr. Yoder’s case ultimately settled that morning before any proceedings began and the people summoned for jury duty were permitted to leave.  Mr. Woods, however, was eventually arrested on site and charged with one count of misdemeanor jury tampering and one count of felony obstruction.

Mr. Woods successfully petitioned the district court judge to dismiss the felony charge, but the jury tampering charge proceeded to trial.  The prosecutor presented two witnesses at Mr. Woods’ trial, Ms. Johnson and Ms. Devries, who appeared as prospective jurors on the morning of Mr. Yoder’s court proceedings.  They testified that they were approached by Mr. Woods on the courthouse steps, that he inquired if they were there for jury duty and, upon affirmation to that question, distributed a pamphlet to them.  Mr. Woods’ defense was that he had not attempted to influence a “juror” as used in MCL 750.120a(1) because they were only prospective jurors and not empaneled to make a judicial decision.  He also raised several constitutional arguments justifying his conduct, including First Amendment free speech arguments.  He was convicted by the district court of jury tampering and sentenced to serve eight weekends in jail.  His sentence was stayed as he pursued an appeal of his conviction at the Michigan Court of Appeals.

A divided 2-1 panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the majority held a “juror” under MCL 750.120a(1) included those summoned for jury duty, “even if never selected [or] sworn to serve on a jury.”  People v Wood, 326 Mich App 561, 571; 928 NW2d 267 (2018).  Judge Murphy, the lone dissenter, stated he would have held that a person is not a “juror” under MCL 750.120a(1) “at the point a time that [he or she] has merely been summoned for jury duty and arrives at the courthouse.”  The appeal attracted attention across the political spectrum and amicus briefs were filed by the ACLU of Michigan, the CATO Institute, and the Fully Informed Jury Association.  Mr. Woods appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

In a 5-2 decision, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and vacated the jury tampering charge.  The majority acknowledged that MCL 750.120a(1) does not define the word “juror”.  The prosecutor argued for a very broad definition, but the majority ultimately concluded that this view was not supported by the intent of the Michigan Legislature:

  • “In sum, under MCL 750.120a(1), an individual summoned for jury duty is not a juror when he or she merely shows up at the courthouse for jury duty. Defendant here talked to individuals who had been summoned for jury duty but had yet to participate in any court proceedings that would make them a part of any case. When defendant approached Johnson and DeVries, they had neither entered the courthouse nor sat as part of a venire nor sworn an oath. And all the individuals summoned for jury duty on the day of the Yoder trial, ultimately, did not participate in any case because they were dismissed before any proceedings began. Defendant, therefore, had not discussed jury nullification with any “jurors” as that term is used in MCL 750.120a(1). Because the individuals summoned for jury duty here had not participated in any meaningful sense in the proceedings of a case, we need not decide whether the term “juror” in MCL 750.120a(1) is limited to those who serve on a jury.” Slip op at 13-14.

Since the majority rule that the conviction could not stand due to the individuals in this case not being “jurors” on statutory grounds, the First Amendment free speech issues were not addressed.

The guilt or innocence of Mr. Woods in this case turned on the definition of one word: “juror”.  If Ms. Johnson and Ms. DeVries were actually impaneled on the Yoder jury and Mr. Woods attempted to distribute pamphlets to them on their lunch break, there would be no question that he had violated the law.  It is hard to draft a statute that applies to every situation, so it is the job of the courts to interpret the law and decide how the enumerated penal code applies to the unique situation before it.  Reasonable judges can differ on how broad or narrow a word should be defined.  Mr. Woods was defeated at the trial level and at the Court of Appeals, but was fortunate to find a judicial body willing to define the word “juror” in his favor.  Sometimes, the work of a skilled, persuasive lawyer at convincing the right panel of judges is the difference between victory and defeat.

If you or a loved one have a criminal matter and need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.

 

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