Constitutional Law

Lawyer Wins New Trial for Client Because Judge Didn't Put Jury Under Oath

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Sentenced to 15 to 40 years after being convicted of assault with intent to commit murder by stabbing an acquaintance in his apartment in what the prosecution described as a drunken frenzy, Timothy Lawrence Becktel has won a new trial.

Because the judge in his case apparently forgot to put the jury under oath (or affirmation), once it was empaneled, as state law requires, this plain error of “grave significance” demands that Becktel receive a new trial, the Michigan Court of Appeals said in a written opinion (PDF) yesterday.

The judge did have the array of potential jurors in the Washtenaw County case put under oath before the panel was selected. However, their promise, at that time, to answer “truthfully, fully and honestly” all questions put to them during the selection process was not a sufficient substitute for the required juror oath and renders Becktel’s conviction invalid, the appeals court writes.

“The required oath is not a mere ‘formality’ which is required only by tradition. The oath represents a solemn promise on the part of each juror to do his duty according to the dictates of the law to see that justice is done. This duty is not just a final duty to render a verdict in accordance with the law, but the duty to act in accordance with the law at all stages of trial,” the court explains, quoting from a 1976 opinion in the case of People v. Pribble, 72 Mich. App. 219.

“The oath is administered to insure that the jurors pay attention to all the evidence, observe the credibility and demeanor of all the witnesses and conduct themselves at all times as befits one holding such an important position. The oath is designed to protect the fundamental right of trial by an impartial jury.”

Attorney James Hall represented Becktel in the appeal, reports the Associated Press.

Assistant prosecutor David King says the government may appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court because Becktel’s trial attorney didn’t object to the failure to put the jury under oath at the time.

Earlier coverage:

Ann Arbor News: “Saline man arraigned in stabbing of friend”

Updated at 2:25 p.m. to link to earlier article.

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