Monday, August 9, 2010

Seventh Circuit on Hearsay and Confrontation and on Mid-Trial Summaries

In United States v. McGee, 612 F.3d 627 (7th Cir. 2010), a nontax case, Judge Easterbrook for the Seventh Circuit held that the district court had erred in allowing evidence about a wiretap, the concern being that the evidence of the procedure to obtain authorization for a wiretap, including a judge's approval, was a hearsay narration tending to establish the guilt of the defendant. The court concluded that the prosecutor had gone too far:

The right way is for the prosecutor (in an opening statement) or the judge to tell the jury that judicial permission is required and was received, and that the process of listening is subject to statutory controls. There was no legitimate reason to present hearsay about the particulars of McGee's activities or the findings of the judge who issued the warrant. Evidence must be submitted through witnesses with personal knowledge, and subject to cross-examination.
The Seventh Circuit had, prior to the trial in McGee, warned of the use of such evidence in another case, United States v. Cunningham, 462 F.3d 708 (7th Cir. 2006). Given that precedent, the Court expressed surprise that the prosecutor did what he did, that the Court did not stop the prosecutor, and that defense counsel did not object. As to defense counsel, the Court smelled a rat who, perhaps, chose not to object to preserve a right to appeal in a losing case. The Court said:

And defense counsel likewise must have understood that the testimony was out of bounds -- yet he did not object. It is unlikely that counsel was asleep; the hearsay rule is second nature to any trial lawyer. Perhaps he viewed the prosecutor's misstep as a godsend. Evidence of McGee's financial exactions was going to come in from the victims, who had personal knowledge, and their testimony would be bolstered by recordings from wiretaps plus hidden microphones and cameras. The main thing the hearsay did was create an issue for appeal. A lawyer who knows that the evidence is solidly against his client may see strategic value in allowing error to occur, despite the fact that the plain-error standard will make it hard to upset the verdict on appeal.
Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit did not reverse: "Even if we are wrong in suspecting that counsel's silence was strategic (which would imply waiver and not just forfeiture), the standard of plain-error review has not been satisfied."

For me the more interesting discussion in the case is the use of mid-trial summaries by the counsel for the parties. In lengthy trials, periodic mid-trial summaries of the evidence are being used more often in order to hold the jury's attention and refresh the evidence. The Seventh Circuit noted:

Principle 13G of the American Bar Association's Principles for Juries and Jury Trials (2005), recommends that judges allow such interim summaries in lengthy trials, whether civil or criminal. The Seventh Circuit American Jury Project tested seven of the ABA's proposals in [*10] trials before more than a dozen participating judges; mid-trial summaries were among the tested proposals and were used in 17 civil trials. Both the judges and counsel concluded that the summaries had helped jurors organize the evidence better, improving their attention and understanding. None of the participants thought the summaries were hurtful, though 8% thought that they did not help much either. American Jury Project, Final Report 32-35, 63-65 (2008).
The Seventh Circuit noted also that such summaries have proved useful in civil trials and there was no substantial reason to believe that they could not be used effectively in criminal trials. The court distinguished an earlier case from the Second Circuit, United States v. Yakobowicz, 427 F.3d 144 (2d Cir. 2005), which had disapproved of the particular implementation of mid-trial summaries -- i.e., summaries after each witness which, the Second Circuit perceived, gave unfair advantages to the prosecution. The Seventh Circuit disagreed at least in principle with the sweeping scope of Yakobowicz's concerns:

In McGee's case the district judge allowed just one opportunity to each side, after the only weekend break. (The trial concluded before the second weekend; it was shorter than counsel had estimated.) The judge thought that a refresher would help jurors regain their focus after the break. The prosecutor spoke for seven minutes; his remarks cover five pages of the transcript. He reminded the jury that the indictment had nine counts and summarized in just a few sentences per count where the evidence stood. He did not present argument, ask rhetorical questions, or propose contestable inferences. It was a simple "just the facts" recap of the sort Joe Friday would have approved. We doubt that the second circuit would see a problem with this procedure.

And if it would -- well, we think that Yakobowicz over-stated the risks and understated the potential benefits. The majority in that decision seems to have been unaware that the use of mid-trial summaries has been studied in criminal as well as civil trials, and that the opinion's fears have not come to pass. The report of the Seventh Circuit American Jury Project had not been released when Yakobowicz was issued, but other reports predated that decision. For example, a pilot program in Tennessee used mid-trial summaries in both criminal and civil cases, and the participants found that the summaries helped jurors. See Neil P. Cohen & Daniel R. Cohen, Jury Reform in Tennessee, 34 U. Mem. L. Rev. 1, 31-34 (2003). Two psychologists concluded that mid-trial summaries should reduce the prosecutor's advantage in a criminal trial by allowing the defense to undermine the prosecution's case from the outset by narratives and not just cross-examination. See Saul M. Kassin & Lawrence S. Wrightsman, The American Jury on Trial: Psychological Perspectives 136-37 (1988). They observed that the prosecutor benefits from the primacy effect -- that people give extra weight to the first information they learn about a subject. Summaries during trial may help jurors understand that the first information is not necessarily the best, and if so the summaries will improve the accuracy of verdicts.

It is hard to see why mid-trial recaps should be allowed in civil trials but categorically forbidden in criminal trials, as McGee contends they should be. Support for summaries in civil trials is widespread. See, in addition to sources we've mentioned already, Federal Judicial Center, Manual for Complex Litigation §§ 12.21, 12.34 (4th ed. 2004); New York State Bar Association, Committee on Federal Courts, Improving Jury Comprehension in Complex Civil Litigation, 62 St. John's L. Rev. 549, 557-58 (1988); State Bar of Texas, Report of the Court Administration Task Force 54 (2008); B. Michael Dann, "Learning Lessons" and "Speaking Rights": Creating Educated and Democratic Juries, 68 Ind. L.J. 1229, 1255-56 (1993); Tom M. Dees, III, Juries: On the Verge of Extinction? A Discussion of Jury Reform, 54 SMU L. Rev. 1755, 1778-80 (2001); William W Schwarzer, Reforming Jury Trials, 1990 U. Chi. Legal Forum 119, 144-45; Douglas G. Smith, Structural and Functional Aspects of the Jury: Comparative Analysis and Proposals for Reform, 48 Ala. L. Rev. 441, 537 (1997). If there are skeptics, they have kept their silence.

Yakobowicz thought that criminal trials are different because juries are not supposed to reach conclusions until all of the evidence is concluded. That's true of both civil and criminal trials, however. In both civil and criminal trials jurors are exposed to persuasion from the start: lawyers get to make opening statements, and questions are asked in a way that lawyers hope will influence jurors, who inevitably form tentative opinions as they hear evidence. They must keep their minds open so that opinions can change as more evidence comes in, but this does not imply that jurors, civil or criminal, are supposed to be empty vessels until they hear the judge's instructions at the very end. The sort of objections to summaries advanced in Yakobowicz also have been essayed against allowing jurors to take notes or ask questions, but those procedures have been approved in this circuit, and elsewhere. See SEC v. Koenig, 557 F.3d 736, 741-42 (7th Cir. 2009).

The second circuit observed that argumentative questions (and for that matter argumentative objections to questions) are disallowed, but that's true of both civil and criminal trials -- and the reason for keeping argument out of questions is to avoid harassing witnesses and prevent an asymmetric and time-consuming presentation. Both sides can recapitulate the evidence; summaries are not windy, unilateral harangues, as argumentative questions can be. Yakobowicz also observed that there is less discovery in criminal cases than in civil, which is true, but defendants usually know more about the prosecutor's case than the prosecutor knows about the defense case, and defendants can keep it that way if they prefer. They need not use summaries to tip their hands. It is hard to see how interim summaries could change the relative informational differences established by Fed. R. Crim. P. 16.

And we just don't see why Yakobowicz perceived a constitutional problem with mid-trial summaries. The due process clause is not a code of trial procedure. Many changes have occurred since 1791. One of the principal changes is an increase in the length of trials. In the eighteenth century multiple criminal trials were held in a single day. See James D. Rice, The Criminal Trial Before and After the Lawyers: Authority, Law, and Culture in Maryland Jury Trials, 1681-1837, 40 Am. J. Legal Hist. 455, 463 (1996); John H. Langbein, Shaping the Eighteenth-Century Criminal Trial: A View from the Ryder Sources, 50 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1, 115-23 (1983). Today, by contrast, a single criminal trial can last multiple weeks or months. When trials are short, there's no need for mid-trial recapitulations; when trials are long, jurors' attention and memory may wane, and the opening and closing statements may be too far apart. Nothing in the constitutional text, or the original practice, implies that days or even months must pass without any opportunity for the lawyers to give the jurors their views about where the evidence stands.

Summaries equally available to both sides are no more objectionable than discovery, note-taking by juries, sending written jury instructions to the jurors, and the many changes to the rules of evidence that have accreted during the 219 years since the fifth amendment was approved. Some rules of trial procedure -- juries, counsel, confrontation, and cross-examination -- are in the bill of rights. Most are not. Living judges and legislatures may decide that incremental changes in trial procedure are beneficial.

Finally, we are not persuaded by the second circuit's conclusion that any misstep with respect to interim summaries is a structural error. Circuit Judge Sotomayor was willing to assume that the district judge in Yakobowicz erred by allowing argumentative summaries after each witness. But she disagreed with the majority's conclusion that such an error is "structural." See 427 F.3d at 154-58 (dissenting opinion). Judge Sotomayor's view was vindicated by the Supreme Court's decision in Marcus, which stressed that errors are "structural" only when they change the fundamental framework of the trial -- when, for example, the judge is biased, the defendant lacks counsel, or a vital phrase such as "reasonable doubt" is misdefined, so that the jurors do not understand their task. The Justices regularly declare that errors of trial management are not structural. See, e.g., Rivera v. Illinois, 129 S. Ct. 1446, 173 L. Ed. 2d 320 (2009) (improper denial of peremptory challenge); Washington v. Recuenco, 548 U.S. 212, 126 S. Ct. 2546, 165 L. Ed. 2d 466 (2006) (improper failure to submit a sentencing factor to the jury); Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 306-07, 111 S. Ct. 1246, 113 L. Ed. 2d 302 (1991) (collecting many other examples). Allowing lawyers to be too argumentative is a problem of trial management, and it is subject to the usual doctrines of harmless error and plain error.

Yakobowicz is inapplicable to non-argumentative summaries, is mistaken in concluding that criminal trials differ categorically from civil trials with respect to mid-trial summaries (both kinds of trials permit for the exercise of wise discretion by district judges in jury management), and has been overtaken by the Supreme Court's decision in Marcus. It does not assist McGee. The district judge did not abuse his discretion in allowing one short non-argumentative summary as the trial resumed after a weekend break.

1 comment:

  1. Jack,

    Excellent article!

    I have just a few comments:

    Clients must be disabused of the completely false and absurd notion that their attorney can simply allow objectionable evidence or prosecutorial comments to go unchallenged and then raise the matter on appeal.

    In my humble opinion, it is unethical (if not an outright perpetration of a fraud on the client and/or the court) for an attorney to allow his or her client to believe that the judge or prosecutor's error can be "invited" and then addressed on appeal. Error must be clearly and specifically raised on the record by way of such procedural tools as objection, proffer, motions including motions to strike, argument and voir dire of witnesses. Anything less than counsel's resort to such exacting, energetic and vigorous defense invites affirmance.

    I could not agree with you more as to mid-trial summaries, especially in long trials. The trial judge is vested with wide discretion to allow such summaries, which I believe can enable the jury to keep focused on the presentation of evidence.

    Further, "mini" opening statements should be allowed in order for the jury to track the flow of evidence from one critical (non-cummulative) witness to the next.

    IN SUM: Trial attorneys and judges must be creative. We must use the rules of evidence and the rules of procedure to simplify trials so as to allow the jury to perform at their peak.


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