7th Circuit reverses judgment against postal worker over juror coercion concerns

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed guilty verdicts against a former Merrillville postal worker convicted in a robbery scheme, finding that a holdout juror at the woman’s trial was subjected to “impermissible coercion.”

Tanisha Banks, a former U.S. Postal Service employee from Merrillville, was convicted of plotting a 2017 armed robbery at a Gary post office and sentenced to more than seven years in prison. She was found guilty by a jury of conspiracy and aiding and abetting a robbery following a five-day trial and four hours of deliberation that stretched to about 8:45 p.m.

When the judge polled the jurors at Banks’ request, the fifth juror did not affirm the verdict. When asked whether the guilty verdict was in fact his verdict, Juror 32 responded, “Forced into.” The judge repeated the question, and Juror 32 responded that he needed more time.

The judge continued the poll, and the remaining jurors affirmed the verdict while Juror 32 remained the lone dissenter. After being instructed to continue deliberating, the jurors were sent them back to the jury room at 9:06 p.m. Almost 30 minutes later, the jury again returned a guilty verdict with a unanimous decision.

On appeal, Banks’ argument focused on concerns about the circumstances surrounding the jury poll, which she contended exerted impermissible pressure on the wavering juror. Agreeing with Banks’ concerns, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the totality of the circumstances were “unacceptably coercive” and vacated the judgment, remanding for a new trial.

Specifically, the 7th Circuit expressed concern with the dissenting juror’s “troubling responses to the poll questions, the judge’s decision to complete the poll notwithstanding the juror’s dissent, the lateness of the hour, and the extreme brevity of the jury’s renewed deliberations … .”

“After Juror 32 said, ‘Forced into,’ the judge again asked him, ‘Is this your verdict?’ And he responded, ‘I suppose so.’ The government characterizes this response as suggesting that Juror 32 agreed with the guilty finding. That hardly seems the case,” Chief Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the 7th Circuit panel.  “…When asked a third time, Juror 32 said, ‘I don’t know how to answer that.’ We do not need to speculate about the implications of this answer. The purpose of a jury poll is to confirm unanimity, … and this response decidedly did not do that.

“More concerning is the judge’s next request: ‘I’m asking you to answer that at this time.’ The government argues that this was a neutral inquiry intended only to clear up the uncertainty in Juror 32’s responses. We see it differently,” Sykes continued. “By this time there was no uncertainty about Juror 32’s position. He had already said he was ‘forced into’ the verdict, and he did not retreat from that position when asked two more times.

“Whether the judge intended to merely clear up the uncertainty is irrelevant. Our inquiry focuses on the juror’s perspective. Viewed through that lens, continuing to press Juror 32 for a different answer was unnecessarily coercive.”

Concluding that the manner in which the judge conducted the poll “unnecessarily risked coercion,” among other things, the 7th Circuit found that the totality of the circumstances created a clear and obvious risk of juror coercion.

“Juror 32’s ‘forced into’ response to the poll question is powerful evidence of impermissible coercion. And the circumstances that followed — the judge’s repeated pressing for another answer, the incomplete cautionary instruction, the late hour, and the brief duration of the renewed deliberations — only amplify our concern,” the panel concluded. “Because the risk of juror coercion was clear and obvious, we presume that the error prejudiced Banks and seriously affected the fairness of the proceedings. … The judgment must be vacated.”

The case is United States of v. Tanisha A. Banks, 19-3245.

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