Forget internet invasions of the jury’s inner sanctum. Jurors in North Carolina went old school.
During a break in deliberations over murder charges against a drunken driver who went the wrong way down an exit ramp after a Super Bowl party, the jury foreperson hot-footed it to the local public library and checked out a copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary – the 1953 edition, no less.
Defendant William Thomas Bauberger had a history of DUI and reckless driving conviction, a BAC of 0.20 and a revoked license on the night in 2002 when he went the wrong way and struck a vehicle, killing a woman and injuring her husband. Bauberger conceded he was guilty of involuntary manslaughter but insisted he lacked the malice necessary for second-degree murder.
Shortly after beginning deliberations, the jury asked for a copy of the elements of second-degree murder and manslaughter. The judge re-read the instructions. The jurors then wanted a copy of the instructions on malice and any other contested element.
The jury’s note said, “Many of us are visual people.” The judge said a copy of the instructions would be prepared during the lunch recess.
During the recess, the jury foreperson went for the dictionary, and read some of its definitions to the other jurors when deliberations resumed.
No harm, no foul, according to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Although a Greensboro U.S. District Court had issued a writ of habeas corpus granting Bauberger a new trial, the 4th Circuit panel reversed in Bauberger v. Haynes.
The potentially modified jury instruction, taken as a whole, “conveyed the essence of North Carolina law regarding malice, wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III in the two-to-one Feb. 11 panel opinion. Under the circumstances, there was “no substantial and injurious effect” on the verdict, Wilkinson said.
Dissenting Senior Circuit Judge Damon Keith said the majority opinion opened a Pandora’s box and could lead to a Kafkaesque system “in which jurors decided another human being’s guilt on nothing more than a whim.”
By Deborah Elkins