Mistrial Denied in Case of Chatty Alternate Juror

When one woman’s 15 minutes of fame inadvertently came during jury deliberations in a breach of contract case, Michael Brassfield practically blew a gasket.

Brassfield was the plaintiff in the case against the Moreland School District and moved for a mistrial when it was discovered that an alternate juror had sat in on — and made comments — during the first 15 minutes of deliberations.

Alternates don’t deliberate unless another juror has to be replaced.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Socrates Manoukian denied the mistrial motion, and was affirmed Thursday by San Jose’s Sixth District Court of Appeal.

Justice Nathan Mihara wrote that Manoukian had pulled the alternate juror out of the room the moment it was learned she was inside, and then fully queried jurors about what she had said. Manoukian found that six jurors had heard the out-of-place juror say something other than pleasantries, but said they could disregard it.

He then sent the jurors home. But while Manoukian was discussing the matter with opposing lawyers the next morning, the jury came back with a judgment after only 45 minutes of further deliberations.

Brassfield’s trial counsel made another motion for mistrial, arguing that “admonishments can’t, you know, unring the bell that has rung in this matter.”

The Sixth District noted, though, that Manoukian’s inquiry was complete.

“While the jury reached a verdict fairly swiftly,” Mihara wrote, “this fact alone does not tend to show prejudice because the record reflects that the alternate provided no substantive input and that the trial jurors disregarded her non-substantive input and recommenced their deliberations the next day as instructed.”

The decision, in which Justices Conrad Rushing and Richard McAdams concurred, noted that the unauthorized presence of an alternate in a jury room isn’t novel.

As early as 1935, Mihara pointed out, courts concluded in People v. Bruneman, 4 Cal.App.2d 75, and People v. Britton, 4 Cal.2d 622, that it was reversible error when judges instructed alternate jurors to join other jurors in deliberations.

Things mellowed, Mihara said, when the California Supreme Court in 1979’s People v. Valles, 24 Cal.3d 121, found no problems when a defense lawyer stipulated to the presence of an alternate in the jury room.

Ever since, the simple presence of an alternate during deliberations hasn’t risen to the level of a serious error.

“While Bruneman and Britton suggested that this type of error necessarily led to reversal,” Mihara wrote, “it is clear that the modern view after Valles is that this type of error is ‘not necessarily’ prejudicial.”

The ruling is Brassfield v. Moreland School District, H028855.

— Mike McKee

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