The Perils of Falling Asleep in the Jury Box

Jurors comprise one of the most integral components of our legal system.  In criminal cases, a defendant’s life and liberty is at the mercy of those who sit in the jury box.  In civil cases, a plaintiff may or may not get the compensation they deserve for injuries depending upon what transpires during the jurors’ deliberations.  Therefore, when a juror falls asleep during testimony and when evidence is being presented, those whose fates rest upon the outcome of the trial may not see justice served.

Jurors comprise one of the most integral components of our legal system.  In criminal cases, a defendant’s life and liberty is at the mercy of those who sit in the jury box.  In civil cases, a plaintiff may or may not get the compensation they deserve for injuries depending upon what transpires during the jurors’ deliberations.  Therefore, when a juror falls asleep during testimony and when evidence is being presented, those whose fates rest upon the outcome of the trial may not see justice served.

Jurors who have fallen asleep in the jury box at high profile trials have suffered the repercussions, at the very least, of being mocked in the news.  For instance, WBZ-TV’s Jim Armstrong described the scene through tweets as an alternate juror dozed off during the opening statements of the federal trial of the infamous gangster, James “Whitey” Bolger.  At the famous Deutsche Bank firefighter manslaughter trial in New York City, a juror’s drowsiness was reported by the New York Post.

However, more serious than the media mockery are the consequences in the courtroom when a juror takes a nap.  In an Arkansas death penalty case, the conviction and sentence was reversed due to the prejudice caused to the defendant by one of the jurors falling asleep during the course of the trial.  Additionally, in an Ohio case, plain error was found when instances of sleeping jurors had been brought to the judge’s attention five times.

It may be up to the discretion of the judge whether to replace a juror for taking a snooze in the jury box.  A mistrial could only be declared if the court finds that the outcome would have been different, but for the sleeping juror.  To eliminate any potential issues that could result in a mistrial, the judge in Lester Knox Coleman v. Commonwealth of Kentucky removed a juror when he heard snoring coming from the jury box.  On appeal, the court found that the judge did not abuse his discretion in removing the juror for cause to preserve the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

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