US v. Johnson: Johnson and his codefendant were on trial for numerous charges related to their alleged membership in a “violent street and prison gang in Baltimore.” Among the charges were those related to the intimidation and murder of witnesses. During trial a juror told a court security officer (in front of the other juror) that some of “the defendants’ associates” had tried to take pictures of jurors as they stepped out into the hallway. The district court denied the defendants’ motion for a mistrial, utilizing court staff to perform a brief investigation, but without holding a hearing where any of the jurors were questioned under oath. The mistrial was denied (although the initial reporting juror was dismissed), the defendants convicted, and sentences of life imposed on both.
On appeal, a divided Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment (although not the verdicts) and remanded with orders to the district court to hold a hearing on the matter of jury interference. The court concluded that the single juror’s report of possibly being photographed was sufficient to trigger the district court’s obligation to hold a hearing under Remmer and that the district court’s outsourcing of its investigation to court staff was not appropriate. Furthermore, the court noted that the most important issue was how the conduct impacted the jury (at least the initial juror who made the report, if not the rest of the jury), not whether the reported conduct was accurately described. In other words, whether the photo taking actually took place was irrelevant compared to whether the juror thought she was being targeted.
Judge Motz dissented, arguing that the reported conduct was “what we ordinarily would consider innocuous,” noting that none of the other jurors “interpreted their actions as photographing or attempting to photograph the jury.”