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Erroneous Jury Instruction Nets Raped Missouri Prisoner New Civil Trial

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a jury verdict against a prisoner-plaintiff, finding that the lower court erred in responding to a jury question during deliberations.

Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) prisoner Ronnie Conley was raped repeatedly by a cellmate. ?After the first attack, he sought protective custody? from Reed Very his housing unit guard. Very denied that request and at least two later protective custody requests, from Conley.

Conley brought a failure-to-protect action against Very in federal court. The case proceeded to trial. During deliberations, the jury asked the court if there had been past complaints against Very for denying protective custody complaints. ?Over Conley?s objection, the court instructed the jury that ?no evidence was presented? regarding past complaints against Very for denying protective custody requests.? Less than 40 minutes later, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Very. The court subsequently denied Conley?s motion for a new trial.

The Eighth Circuit noted that the parties agreed that evidence of past complaints against Very was irrelevant. It then found that the court?s response to the jury ?implied that such evidence would have been relevant to the case. There is a reasonable likelihood, therefore, that they jury interpreted the district court?s response to mean that the absence of evidence showing prior complaints about Very tended to make less probable the allegation that Very failed to respond to Conley?s request for protective custody. The court?s response may have been factually accurate, but the substance of the jury?s question was irrelevant, and that is what the jury should have been told.?

The court found that there was a reasonable likelihood Conley was prejudiced by the erroneous response, because that response ?creates a reasonable likelihood that the jury believed that the evidence of prior complaints was relevant, and then construed the absence of such evidence against Conley, as the Party with the burden of proof. There is a reasonable likelihood that Conley was prejudiced, as the deliberations were short, and the question showed that the jury was focused on the matter of past complaints.? Therefore, the case was remanded for a new trial. See: Conley v. Very, 450 F.3d 786 (8th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Conley v. Very