The Supreme Court Rejects “Jury Homework”

State v. Morgan, 217 N.J. 1 (2013).  In State v. Morgan, 423 N.J. Super. 453 (App. Div. 2011), discussed here, the Appellate Division found no bar to a trial judge allowing jurors to take written jury instructions home with them to study further.  The Law Division judge here decided to do that after the jury foreperson asked for the right to take the instructions home, saying “[w]e want homework.  We’re a studious bunch.”

Today, in a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Rabner, the Supreme Court held that this was not allowed.  The Court noted that Rule 1:8-8(a) provides that “the court, in its discretion, may submit a copy of all or part of its instructions to the jury for its consideration in the jury room (emphasis added).”  That plain language made clear, as Chief Justice Rabner “emphasize[d,] that copies of written jury instructions are for use in the jury room–  and only in the jury room.”  A recommendation of the Supreme Court’s Criminal Practice Committee that advocated this result contributed to the Court’s conclusion as well.

The Court also ruled that two ex parte discussions that the trial judge had with the jury were improper.  “Ex parte communications between a trial judge and a jury are improper and must be avoided.  There is no place for them in the trial process….  There are no exceptions.”

Despite those errors, the Court upheld the conviction of defendant.  One of the judge’s ex parte communications with the jury was recorded and related only to “ministerial scheduling matters.”  Thus, that ex parte communication caused no prejudice.  The other ex parte communication related to the decision to allow the jurors to take the instructions home.  At that time, the judge cautioned the jury not to do research or discuss the case while away from the jury room.  There was no evidence that any juror behaved in any “untoward” fashion as a result of taking the instructions home.  Indeed, the jury acquitted defendant on one charge and reached no verdict on another.  Accordingly, since there was no prejudice from any of the errors, the conviction was affirmed.