A juror's extraordinary request to be removed from the death-penalty deliberations in the trial of convicted cop killer Marco Antonio Topete brought the months-long trial to an abrupt halt Thursday.
Jurors swiftly convicted Topete last month for gunning down Yolo County Sheriff's Deputy Jose Antonio Diaz in a June 2008 ambush. They began death penalty deliberations Wednesday.
In a brief note to Yolo Superior Court Judge Paul Richardson on Thursday afternoon, the unidentified juror asked that an alternate juror replace her.
Before jurors are picked in death penalty cases, they are carefully screened or "death qualified" to make sure they can enforce the law. Hundreds of prospective jurors were summoned in the case to find a suitable panel.
The woman said in her note that she was raised in a foreign country and was having difficulty making the life-or-death decision from an American perspective. "I have tried my best, but now I see that I am dragging other juries (sic) down," she wrote.
Her request put the judge in a quandary. Is the jury simply deadlocked, or are there grounds to replace her?
Prosecutors, hoping for a death recommendation, said there was legal precedent for replacing the holdout juror.
Topete's lawyers said the request put the proceedings in jeopardy. If jurors remain deadlocked, their client would get life without parole.
All agreed the court needed to proceed carefully. Richardson asked lawyers to prepare briefs and argue the matter Monday.
He brought in the jurors and ordered that they stop their deliberations until further notice.
"This is an exquisitely difficult decision for a judge," said Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg. The fact that it's a death-penalty case adds to the pressure.
Experts said a judge typically needs good reason to replace a juror, such as physical illness or misconduct. Opposing views among jurors aren't enough.
"It is inappropriate to replace a juror because they disagree with other jurors," said Ruth Jones, a former prosecutor and professor at McGeorge School of Law.
Deadlocked juries happen all the time, and judges don't break impasses by replacing holdout jurors with alternates, law professors said.
But Weisberg said judges have broad discretion over what happens in their courtrooms, and Richardson has a range of options.
He could replace the juror, but that risks reversal of a death sentence on appeal, he said. The judge could declare a mistrial, which he called a "nuclear" option.
The safest route would be to send the woman back to deliberate either to hold her ground or go along with her fellow jurors, Weisberg said.
"She is simply a death-penalty ambivalent juror who legitimately got through voir dire," he said.
"The judge can force her to stay on the jury," Weisberg said. "He can use persuasion, wisdom and tact to clarify what her role is."
Jones said the judge and lawyers will try to carefully determine the legal standards for replacing jurors in death-penalty cases. Then they may call the woman in to question her about her reasons for wanting to be replaced.
Jury deliberations are secret, so they will try to keep the questions as narrowly focused as possible, she said.
The woman, Jones said, may have thought she could uphold the law during selection but had second thoughts.
"The questions they ask during jury selection are issues in the abstract," Jones said. "That's very different form sitting with others and trying to reach a verdict, particularly when it comes to death."