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May I look up the word technicality?

It's stories like this that makes you wonder if our justice system is insane.

John Fanning, a juror in the trial of suspended Miramar Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman, brought his home dictionary into the deliberation room Tuesday thinking it was the smart thing to do.

He couldn't spell the word he wanted to define -- ''imminent'' -- and needed his fellow jurors to help him out, he said.

Little did the group know that looking up the word would lead to a mistrial -- and an unexpectedly premature end to Salesman's highly publicized assault trial.

''I thought it was harmless,'' Fanning said. ``I really don't like what happened here. It was a waste of time to me.''

As soon as the dictionary encounter was revealed in court, Salesman's attorneys moved for a mistrial, and prosecutors agreed: Dictionaries are not allowed in deliberations.

The Miami Herald article only says the defense attorney asked the judge to tell the jury not to use a dictionary. Judge Matthew Destry declined, this after he told the jury he couldn't define the word and to solely use the legal definitions provided to them. The judge couldn't supply an answer, the jurors looked for one, and a mistrial results. Jurors are going to use their life experiences and values to render a verdict, and who's to stop them from doing research when not in the court room.(Unless you sequester every single jury) Why should the public think our courts work properly when something like this happens?

Hat tip- SFDB


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Comments (8)

Bill:At trial, any n... (Below threshold)
James H:

At trial, any number of terms have a meaning that diverges from the standard dictionary definition. In some cases, the meaning may be more nuanced than that supplied by a standard English dictionary. In other cases, the meaning may be entirely different. In still others, the finder of fact -- whether jury or judge -- may need to deal with a word that's a term of art within a particular field. In some cases turn on terms that are defined by contract; that contractual definition supersedes a dictionary definition, and turning to such a dictionary could affect a trial's outcome.

If you page through news media for the past several years, you would find any number of cases -- some sent to a jury, some decided by a judge -- that turned on such definitions. Off the top of my head, I can think of cases that turned on how you define "occurrence," "sandwich," or "doll." I don't have the cases in front of me, unfortunately.

My experience as a federal ... (Below threshold)

My experience as a federal juror about ten years ago was instructive about things like this.

One juror wanted to take notes. This was expressly forbidden, and the bailiff informed us that if anyone was found with pencil or paper during the trial, they would be dismissed and an alternate juror installed in their place.

The only time we were given pencil and paper was during deliberations. One juror had a question about the term "on or around," which was used in conjunction with the timeline of a specific charge -- e.g. "on or around" March 15, 10.5 ounces of cocaine was delivered to the defendant. We could only submit a request for clarification in writing to the judge himself, hand-delivered by the bailiff. The judge responded that the term had been sufficiently defined during the trial and that further elaboration was unnecessary.

All this might seem strange, but it is how our system tries to ensure fairness and impartiality.

Having served local, state ... (Below threshold)

Having served local, state and federal jury duty, I can say not only is the law wonky, but deliberations and yes, definitions are sources of confusion and contention. One case I was part of was a felonious robbery with a knife. The employee was injured because the the robber tried to take his watch. The jury could not agree that the count of felonious assault applied...because the injury was caused by the watch, not the robber wielding a knife in the commission of stealing his watch!

I don't know what's more di... (Below threshold)

I don't know what's more disturbing - that the juror couldn't figure out how to spell "imminent", or that no one else on the jury apparently knew what the word meant, either.

Remembered the cases involv... (Below threshold)
James H:

Remembered the cases involving words. "Sandwich" dealt with a lease situation. The lease in question did not properly define "sandwich," and the lessee thought "sandwich" should include "burrito." Said lessee was a sandwich shop and didn't want the landlord to lease a nearby space to a burrito shop.

"Occurrence" spun out of 9/11. Was the terrorist attack one occurence or two under insurance terms of art? When the amount at stake is a billion dollars, you litigate.

As for "doll" a judge ruled that the X-Men are not human -- and therefore are not dolls -- in a case that involved tax rates.

It makes more sense if you ... (Below threshold)

It makes more sense if you read the whole article. They were told not to use a dictionary. They wanted to know what exactly was meant by "immediate danger", the law maybe uses "imminent danger" and probably doesn't give an exact definition of "imminent" and it sounds like that's what they were looking for (did he think he'd be in danger in 5 seconds? 12? 45 minutes? 2 days?) The judge correctly told them they had to go by the legal definitions they'd been given, not that he "didn't know what it meant", but that it's the sort of thing intentionally (or unintentionally) left up to jury's discretion in reaching verdicts. And the guy brings in his dictionary anyway. It's the juror that should have his head examined. In this case the courts worked to perfection, Bill, protecting the rights of the accused to a fair trial. In this instance THE ENTIRE CASE probably hinged on whether or not the jury believed the accused was in imminent danger when he pulled the gun. And they went out and tried to use some random outside source to tell them exactly what timeframe that was instead of using their legal guidance. Can you imagine if they used a Webster and it led them to believe 'imminent' meant one thing and the next jury in a similar case used a Random House and got a different impression for this rather vague term and THAT is what they based their verdict on?

Basically, Bill, you've just said the courts are screwed up for following the 14th amendment.

The problem with using lega... (Below threshold)

The problem with using legal definition is it is a jury trial. Which means that the Jury is suppose to apply their experiences and yes sometime personal definition of words to apply to a case. I understand the court not wanting lawyers or Jurists twisting things but I think they often overdo it and it ends up hurting justice.

I understand the jurist wanting to know what ''imminent'' meant outside of the legal definition. Someone wanting to take notes is very understandable. Yes like anything it has it flaws but it have many benefits as well.

My experience as a feder... (Below threshold)

My experience as a federal juror about ten years ago was instructive about things like this.

One juror wanted to take notes. This was expressly forbidden, and the bailiff informed us that if anyone was found with pencil or paper during the trial, they would be dismissed and an alternate juror installed in their place.

Hmmm. When I was on a Federal case I took copious notes - other jurors did too. Some cases take MONTHS to try - how are you going to deliberate without notes? There's no transcript for the jury to look at.

Another criminal case I was on (not federal) I was allowed to take notes as well.

I guess your jury had a judge with a "thing" about notes.






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