"hey, Google, What Are the Elements of Homicide by Vehicle in the First Degree?": the Supreme Court of Georgia Reinforces the Prohibition on Extrajudicial Information Considered by a Jury in Criminal Trials

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal,Georgia
Publication year2023
CitationVol. 74 No. 2

"Hey, Google, What Are the Elements of Homicide by Vehicle in the First Degree?": The Supreme Court of Georgia Reinforces the Prohibition on Extrajudicial Information Considered by a Jury in Criminal Trials

Savannah Hall

[Page 751]

"Hey, Google, What Are the Elements of Homicide by Vehicle in the First Degree?": The Supreme Court of Georgia Reinforces the Prohibition on Extrajudicial Information Considered by a Jury in Criminal Trials

Savannah Hall*

I. Introduction

In a criminal trial, the presentation of evidence and the instruction of law to the jury are of crucial importance to ensure that a person is only convicted based upon sound understandings of the factual and legal framework under which they were charged. The complexities surrounding the rules of evidence are in place so that jurors are only allowed to consider the facts and testimony permissible under the rules of evidence, meaning it is of utmost importance for the jury to consider solely those things which a judge deems admissible, relevant, and helpful to understanding the case. However, given the technological nature of modern society and the vast availability of an Internet connection, it has become increasingly difficult to keep jurors confined in the bubble of information which is supposed to surround them at trial. The legal remedies for a guilty verdict rendered based on extrajudicial information

[Page 752]

obtained by the jury are firmly established. Nevertheless, it is time for the federal and state legislatures to further assess the issue to move the criminal justice system away from wrongful convictions and towards a trustworthy system of justice which ensures fairness and upholds the constitutional rights of those accused of a crime.

Upon showing that a member of the jury has obtained extrajudicial information during trial or deliberations, a presumption is given to the defendant that the presence of the outside information harmfully prejudiced the verdict. From this presumption of prejudice, the State bears the burden of proving that the information was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. On a motion for a new trial, jurors are permitted to testify as to the existence of extrajudicial information that was obtained by a juror and brought to the other members of the jury's attention at any point before the verdict is delivered. They may not, however, testify to either the weight that the extrajudicial information had on their mental processes in reaching their verdict, or the reasons why they reached a particular decision. Unless the State proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrajudicial information was harmless and that the verdict was not inherently lacking in due process, the defendant is entitled to a new trial based on the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by an impartial jury, and the right to confront witnesses brought against them. These were the principles reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Georgia in Harris v. State,1 which resulted in a reversal of the decisions of the lower courts and an opinion remanding the case to be reconsidered applying the proper legal standards.2

II. Factual Background

Shalita Harris was a school bus driver transporting thirty-three elementary school students whose ages ranged from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. As they drove down the road, the bus approached a sharp curve and, while traveling at a speed greater than the posted speed limit signs, the bus departed from the roadway and landed on its side. The crash caused a six-year-old passenger to be ejected from the bus which caused injuries that resulted in her death. Consequently, Harris was indicted for and convicted of homicide by vehicle in the first degree and reckless driving.3 After the trial concluded, Harris's attorney learned

[Page 753]

from two jurors that some of the jurors had gathered information from Google regarding the difference in the severity of the charges relating to sentencing. Those jurors then shared the information regarding the differences with the other jurors during deliberations.4

Harris filed a motion for a new trial and an amended motion for a new trial which was based on jury misconduct. All twelve jurors testified at the hearing, and two of the jurors testified that they Googled the difference between homicide by vehicle in the first and second degree.5 The information was shared among all of the jurors during deliberations which subsequently resulted in a conviction for homicide by vehicle in the first degree, a felony that carries a harsher sentence. Harris argued that a presumption of prejudice existed because the jurors obtained and considered extrajudicial information during deliberations which created a burden for the State to overcome that presumption beyond a reasonable doubt. The State argued that due to the enactment of the new evidence code and Official Code of Georgia Annotated section 24-6-606(b),6 the presumption had been quashed.7 The trial court agreed with the State and denied Harris's motion for a new trial stating that:

The defense relies on an appellate court decision, Chambers v. State, [ ] for this proposition. However, Chambers was decided based on the law prior to the adoption of the new evidence code. Thus, it provides little guidance as to how to assess prejudice pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 24-6-606 once there is evidence of extrajudicial information.8

The trial court further found that, because the information obtained by the jury was neither related to evidentiary matters nor substantive law

[Page 754]

but was instead about sentencing matters, there was no reasonable probability that the extraneous information impacted their verdict.9

Harris appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in determining that the presumption of prejudice was abrogated with the enactment of the new evidence code, thus rendering its analysis erroneous by failing to hold the State to the burden of overcoming the presumption.10 The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision without addressing whether it applied the correct standard for the issue.11 It reasoned that because the information obtained by the jury was merely regarding sentencing differences as opposed to substantive law, the misconduct was not the type that was "so inherently prejudicial as to require a new trial."12 It held that even though the actions of the jury were improper, they were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and did not contribute to the verdict.13

The Supreme Court of Georgia vacated the Georgia Court of Appeals' opinion and remanded the case to the trial court to decide, based on the correct legal standard, whether Harris's motion for a new trial should be granted.14 Regarding the actions of the trial court, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that the lower court was incorrect in deciding that O.C.G.A. § 24-6-606 eliminated the presumption of prejudice given to a defendant in cases involving jury misconduct.15 It also found error in the standard used by the trial court in determining prejudice which should have been the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard—the appropriate standard for most constitutionally-based errors, like juror misconduct.16 The Supreme Court of Georgia noted that the Georgia Court of Appeals was correct in recognizing that the presumption of prejudice applies when there is a showing of juror misconduct and in stating that the prosecution must overcome that burden beyond a reasonable doubt.17 Nevertheless, the court determined there was error in the assertion that extrajudicial

[Page 755]

information about the differences in the severity of sentences had no ability to cause prejudice.18

III. Legal Background

The foundational principle prohibiting jurors from considering extraneous and extrajudicial information while deliberating in a criminal trial is deeply rooted in both the united States Constitution and the Georgia Constitution. The Sixth Amendment19 to the u.S. Constitution explicitly gives criminal defendants the right to trial by an impartial jury and to confront witnesses that the government brings against them. This right also applies to defendants involved in state prosecutions by way of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause.20 These ideals are further mirrored in the language of the Georgia Constitution, which solidifies the centrality of these principles to the rights of Georgia citizens.21

Georgia caselaw shows that courts extend the presumption of prejudice to criminal defendants when an issue of jury misconduct arises, and it outlines the process that trial courts are to follow in deciding whether extrajudicial information harmed the defendant to the point of requiring a new trial. In Shaw v. State,22 the Supreme Court of Georgia explained that the law provides a presumption that the defendant has been prejudiced by a showing of jury misconduct and "the onus is upon the state to remove this presumption by proper proof."23 The state bears the responsibility of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that no harm occurred to the defendant because of juror irregularity.24 However, Georgia courts will not disturb a jury verdict and order a new trial based solely upon jury misconduct unless the substance of the statements is so prejudicial that the verdict rendered must be considered "'inherently lacking due process.'"25 The rationale behind the impeachment of verdicts being proper only when they inherently lack due process is founded in both common law and statutory rules.

[Page 756]

A. Verdict Impeachment—Common Law Roots and Statutory Adoption

The idea that jurors should not be used as witnesses in order to impeach their own verdicts arose out of decisions made in English courts and has become a foundational principle in American courts. While this rule is technically an issue of evidence and bears no consequence on the presumption of prejudice following acts of misconduct among the jury, it is worth briefly examining the parameters of the rule to...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT