Court: Verdict stands, even though juror was tanked on vodka

Oct. 1, 2004

Drinking and sleeping during trials does not constitute juror misconduct, according to a New York Supreme Court ruling.
By Samantha Murphy
Court TV

NEW YORK New Yorkers can not only booze up before serving jury duty, but can also snooze through trial proceedings, according to a ruling handed down by the state's Supreme Court.

After firefighter Samuel Brandon, 60, was found guilty in March of stealing 9/11 souvenirs from the World Trade Center site, he ran into one of the jurors outside the courthouse.

A visibly drunk John Anastas, 57, approached the defendant and offered to grab a beer with him, according to Brandon 's lawyer, Ronald Kliegerman.

"We were out on the street and I could just smell the alcohol on him," Kliegerman said. "He was so inebriated."

When the defense team learned that Anastas had pounded vodka and water from a Poland Spring bottle during jury deliberations, lawyers immediately filed an appeal on the grounds of juror misconduct.

The plastered panelist, however, actually had the law on his side.

New York Supreme Court Justice Ellen Coin refused to overturn the firefighter's conviction on Sept. 15, 2004, by ruling that Anastas's behavior was just shy of legal misconduct.

Drinking precedent

As outlandish as it sounds, Coin's decision was based on a rarely cited 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In that case, several jurors allegedly consumed alcohol during the trial's lunch breaks, used cocaine and marijuana, and even slept through hearings.

The defendants a Floridian power plant procurement manager and an outside contractor who were convicted on charges of defraud conspiracy filed a motion for a new trial after the defense attorney was informed that jurors were often incoherent during the trial.

Jurors testified that some of their fellow panelists were often "in a sort of giggly mood" due to intoxication, and others would sleep through the afternoon trial.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court's Federal Rules of Evidence, juror testimony cannot be used to impeach a verdict, except when certain outside influences are inflicted upon a jury.

The court, however, does not recognize juror intoxication as severe enough "outside influence" or "juror misconduct" to sway a verdict.

"Drugs or alcohol voluntarily ingested by a juror however severe their effect and improper their use seem not more an outside influence than a virus, poorly prepared food, or lack of sleep," the 11th circuit of the United States Court of Appeals ruled before the case was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 17-year-old ruling offers little legal recourse for firefighter Brandon and his defense team.

"We are still very upset," Kliegerman said. "We were entitled to a jury of six people, but only five of them were awake and focused. I don't see how this is fair."

Though other jurors knew Anastas was intoxicated often during the trial, Kliegerman said they chose not to come forward with the information.

"It's a natural tendency for jury members to not want to get involved and become a witness for the next three years in a new case," he said.

All five jurors ultimately testified against Anastas, claiming he was "annoying" during the trial and extremely "unfocused."

Bombed jurors abroad

Though drunk jurors in the United States cannot void a verdict, other countries treat wasted panelists much differently.

During the 1998 trial of a accused rapist in Edinburgh , Scotland , juror James Smith, 51, celebrated his birthday in court with a similar vodka-in-a-water-bottle ploy. The jury may have found the defendant not guilty, but the judge found Smith not sober. The defendant walked free; the juror walked away with a fine of about $1,000.

Likewise, during the trial of an accused kidnapper in Plymouth Crown, England , the judge halted the trial when one juror stumbled back from lunch wasted. He dismissed the entire jury and sent the smashed panelist to jail for a night.

By contrast, the U.S. law protects the verdict by not forcing jurors to regarding previous deliberations. This is relevant in all cases except with jury tampering.

"Sometimes you won't know right away if a juror is drunk or impaired," said Richard Willstatter, a defense lawyer in White Plains , N.Y. , who has specialized in federal criminal cases for 15 years. "In [Brandon's] case, it wasn't known until after the verdict was made. The next step would call for hearings to see whether the verdict was derived under 'outside influence.'"

Although Anastas made a clean getaway, the ruling has renewed the controversy surrounding drunk jurors and alerted lawyers on both sides of trials to closely watch the jury box.

"If something happens in a jury room and you see a juror drunk, you would want to boot his ass off the jury as fast as you can," Willstatter said.