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Seventh Circuit Reverses Verdict when Prisoner Not Allowed to Poll Jury

Seventh Circuit Reverses Verdict when Prisoner Not Allowed to Poll Jury

by Derek Gilna

Illinois state prisoner Glenn Verser had been on a hunger strike when he claimed he was beaten by guards at the Western Correctional Center in September 2007 while involved in a cell transfer. He promptly filed a § 1983 federal civil rights action that went to trial in the Central District of Illinois, where a jury found for the defendants. That was not the end of the case, though. Due to the district court’s post-verdict procedural errors, the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Prisoners face many practical and procedural hurdles when pursuing a pro se lawsuit, as reflected in the proceedings in this case. After the close of evidence at trial, the district court judge ordered Verser back to prison and he was removed from the courtroom before he could make any post-trial motions, including a request to poll the jury. That, the Court of Appeals found, violated federal court rules.

In most cases the error might have gone unnoticed, especially since Verser, who had been acting as his own attorney, was no longer in the courtroom to witness what transpired in his absence. The jurors were clearly troubled by their finding for the guards, taking the unusual step of making a statement “indicating that a majority of the jury felt that the defendants ‘all had a part to play in what happened to’ Verser, but based on the evidence ‘could not find the defendants guilty.’”

As noted by the Seventh Circuit in a December 19, 2013 decision, however, Verser never heard that statement because he had not been allowed to remain in the courtroom, which the Court of Appeals found objectionable due to the lack of any apparent security issues. According to the Court, Verser’s “total exclusion from the courtroom prevented him from exercising his right to poll the jury pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 48(c), and that such a poll might have made a difference.”

The appellate court brushed aside the defendants’ argument that Verser’s post-trial exclusion from the courtroom was harmless error, stating it had recognized that “A jury poll is meant to ensure jurors’ accountability for the verdict, ‘creating individual responsibility’ and ferreting out any dissent that, for whatever reason, was not reflected in the verdict as announced.” Verser had an “absolute right” to poll the jury; accordingly, the judgment was reversed and the case remanded for a new trial. See: Verser v. Barfield, 741 F.3d 734 (7th Cir. 2013).

Following remand another trial was held in April 2015, and the jury again entered a verdict in favor of the defendants. Verser’s motion for a new trial was denied and he has since filed an appeal challenging the verdict, which remains pending.


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Related legal case

Verser v. Barfield