Wesley SnipesWesley Snipes really doesn’t want to go to jail. Snipes, who was convicted of tax evasion in 2008, filed a motion for a new trial yesterday in federal court in Florida. As TMZ and others have reported, the motion is based in part on emails received by Snipes from members of the jury that convicted him. These emails assert that at least some of the jurors had already made up their minds that Snipes was guilty before the trial began.

This may seem like a legitimate beef. Jurors are required to consider only the evidence presented to them at trial; if jurors made up their minds before the trial even started, clearly they based their opinions on something other than that evidence. But courts are extremely reluctant to overturn a verdict on the basis of jury misconduct. Some courts faced with clear evidence that jurors were literally sleeping through  portions of the trial have nonetheless refused to grant a new trial. See, e.g., Jackson v. A-C Product Liability Trust, 622 F. Supp. 2d 641 (N.D. Ohio 2009). And the policy reasons behind this hesitation are sound.

Most jurors aren’t particularly happy about being selected to serve on a jury, and predictably many fail to pay close attention throughout their tenure in the jury box. If jury verdicts could be overturned every time a juror misbehaved, the judicial process would become even more inefficient and drawn out than it already is. And jury verdicts would lose an element of finality that is essential to the criminal system.

Luckily, Snipes hasn’t based his motion entirely on jury misconduct. He also claims that the government failed to disclose that its key witness against him, his former accountant Kenneth Starr (just a coincidence, not who you’re thinking of), was being investigated for allegedly helping another one of his clients evade taxes. If this had been made known to the jury, certainly it would have affected Starr’s credibility as a witness. A similar situation often arises when a witness awaiting sentencing agrees to testify on behalf of the government in return for leniency, and the defendant may bring this information to light to suggest to the jury that the witness is biased. Starr was recently arrested and charged with fraud and money laundering, but when Snipes was convicted in 2008, Starr was only under investigation. Given that, evidence of the then-ongoing investigation would go more toward his credibility as a witness, particularly when he was presented to the jury as a “competent tax professional.”

It’s impossible to know how the court will handle this new wrinkle, but it certainly doesn’t hurt Wesley Snipes’ cause. The headline that Starr had been arrested was probably the first piece of good news Snipes had seen in some time. And while he’ll still owe the government a pretty penny, it just may save him some jail time.

– Mark Donnell

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