A bucket of paint held a door to the ceremonial courtroom open for visitors this morning, and the first words out of a clerk’s mouth were not “All rise,” but rather instructions on how to leave in the event an alarm sounds. Evidently some things are still being ironed out at the new home of the D.C. Court of Appeals, which opened its doors April 20 at the Old Courthouse across the street from D.C. Superior Court.
But the smell of fresh paint didn’t seem to bother the 75 or so visitors who filed in to watch the court’s first en banc sitting in the newly renovated courthouse. One woman in the crowd joked about getting popcorn. The show began at 10 a.m. and ran a little more than 90 minutes.
Argument was lively in the case, which explores whether a D.C. Superior Court judge acted outside the scope of her authority when she discharged a sitting juror based on questions he’d asked of witnesses in a drug possession case. Judge Zoe Bush found the juror’s questions “strange” and believed, ultimately, that he would not be able to follow the law in deliberation.
“My concern is that he’s a strange person and that he won’t be able to deliberate fully because of his strangeness,” Bush said, according to court records. The prosecution requested the juror be dismissed; the judge obliged and installed an alternate. The defendant, Novel Hinton, was convicted.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the appeals court found the trial judge abused discretion in discharging the juror.
Today Jaclyn Frankfurt, who argued for the D.C. Public Defender Service as amicus in the Hinton case, said the juror was clearly paying attention during the trial and should have been allowed to try to persuade fellow jurors about his thoughts on the case. Judges cannot interfere without the composition of the jury without cause, Frankfurt said. “It strikes at the very core of the jury trial right,” she said. Arguing for Hinton was solo practitioner Walter Booth of Bethesda.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary McCord countered that there was no prejudice against Hinton because a properly seated jury deliberated and, after reaching consensus, found him guilty.
Moreover, the jury Hinton would get on remand would be no different—in any fundamental way—than the one that heard his case the first time, McCord said. Judge Stephen Glickman questioned that argument, saying there’s always the possibility another juror eager to question witnesses—resembling the juror who was discharged—would be sworn in to sit on the panel.
Judge Inez Smith Reid had her eyes on the future: “If we don’t reverse in this case, what about the next case?” Reid offered up scenarios in which judges would be forced to decide whether “strange” or “bizarre” behavior—such as laying out and counting pennies—would be grounds for dismissal from a jury.