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It's the most dramatic courtroom moment: The jurors announce their verdict, and the judge tells them they're free to go.
But the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that judges can call those jurors back, tell them to deliberate all over again, and bring a new ending to the legal drama if there's been a mistake.
The case stems from one man running a red light in Montana. Rocky Dietz was driving to the gas station when a car driven by another man, Hillary Bouldin, ran a red light and crashed into his car.
Dietz sued Bouldin for the cost of physical therapy to treat a back injury and other medical expenses. Bouldin admitted he was at fault and agreed that the medical bills amounted to about $10,000. The only question was how much more he would have to pay to cover future costs.
The jury ruled for Rocky Dietz, but awarded him nothing — zero dollars. The judge thanked the jurors and told them, "You're free to go. The jury's discharged."
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But a short time later, the judge realized that the verdict wasn't legally permissible, because it had to be at least the $10,000 amount that was agreed on. So he ordered that the jurors be rounded up and brought back.
Most of them were still in the courthouse, though one had gone to get a hotel receipt. After satisfying himself that the jurors didn't discuss the case with anyone else, the judge ordered them to deliberate again and reach a different verdict. The next morning, they awarded Dietz $15,000.
Dietz appealed, saying he should have gotten a new trial, but by a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court said a judge has the power to bring a jury back to fix a mistaken verdict.
The ruling said judges can never do it in a criminal case, because of the double jeopardy issue. And the longer the judge waits, the greater the risk that jurors will become tainted by comments from court staff, reaction to the verdict, or exposure to something on the internet, the decision said.
"How long is too long" is left to a judge's discretion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion, "but it could be as short as even a few minutes, depending on the case."
Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy dissented, saying the rule should be that a jury can never be recalled, given "today's world of cell phones, wireless Internet, and 24/7 news coverage," making it too difficult to avoid undue influences once the jurors leave the courtroom.