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First impression in jury rule issue

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The participation of alternate jurors in discussions of evidence during recesses from trial, as allowed under Indiana Jury Rule 20(a)(8), doesn't violate Indiana statute that prevents alternates from participating in deliberations. The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on the matter for the first time today.

In Austin C. Witherspoon v. State of Indiana, No. 45A03-0809-CR-466, Austin Witherspoon argued that allowing alternate jurors to discuss a case during a recess is the same as them deliberating the case, which alternates aren't allowed to do in Indiana unless he or she replaces a juror. He also claimed he was denied his constitutional and statutory right to a 12-person jury when the alternates were instructed they could discuss the case.

He objected to a preliminary instruction to the jury that said they were allowed to discuss the evidence among themselves during recess from the trial; he raised the same issue in a motion in limine on the morning of his trial for robbery.

The trial court denied his motions, noting the issue hadn't been addressed by the appellate courts, but the alternates would be allowed to participate in the discussions.

Jury Rule 20(a)(8) was amended effective Jan. 1, 2008, to allow alternates to also discuss the evidence in the jury room during recesses from trial when everyone is present.

"We acknowledge Weatherspoon's argument that during discussions, alternate jurors talk about issues of credibility, highlight and discount certain evidence, and narrow and broaden the issues, all of which may affect the final judgment or verdict, yet these discussions are the very discussions that alternate jurors may not have during deliberations," wrote Judge Nancy Vaidik. "Nevertheless, our Supreme Court has unambiguously made a distinction between discussions and deliberations. We are not at liberty to rewrite the rules promulgated by our Supreme Court."

In regards to Witherspoon's constitutional challenge to the rule, the appellate judges pointed out that there isn't a constitutional limit to the maximum number of jurors and he received the statutory entitlement of a 12-member jury.

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