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The right to trial by jury is guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions and is implemented by statute. There is nothing in the constitutions, the statutes or the court's decisions interpreting them expressly authorizing or prohibiting the use of multiple juries. Although the power to regulate practice and procedure lies with the legislature, the courts have wide latitude to adopt procedures consistent with general practice as provided by statute. Although the legislature has not addressed the practice of one trial/two juries, its preference for joint trials is clear. In the interest of judicial economy it has granted the courts broad discretion to join a wide variety of charges and parties for prosecution if doing so does not jeopardize the rights of the defendants. If proof against codefendants is supplied by the same evidence only the most cogent reasons warrant a severance.
Defendant Ricardo was convicted on a jury verdict of criminally negligent homicide, arising out of a motor vehicle accident in which the victim was killed when her automobile was struck by two vehicles, one operated by defendant and the other by his codefendant, who were engaged in a high-speed race. On affirmation, defendant appealed to the instant court, contending that the procedure employed by the trial court in trying him and a codefendant together before separate juries was unauthorized and unconstitutional. Defendant also asserted that the dual jury procedure was inherently prejudicial and the evidence was insufficient to establish his guilt.
Did the use of multiple juries to try defendant and his co-defendant violate the defendant’s constitutional rights?
The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that the Trial Justice exercised her discretion within permissible legal limits when she ordered two juries (one as to each defendant) and the procedure did not prejudice the defense. According to the Court, the right to trial by jury was guaranteed by both Federal and State Constitutions (US Const 6th Amend; NY Const, art I, § 2) and implemented by statute (CPL arts 260, 270), and there was nothing in the Constitutions, the statutes or decisions interpreting them, which expressly authorized or prohibited the use of multiple juries in New York. The court's power to employ multiple juries, while not explicit in the statute, may logically be implied from its terms. In this case, the People's evidence against the two defendants was the same except for defendant's inculpatory statement to a bystander. Under the circumstances, the harm to defendant, if any, resulting from the use of separate juries was little more than that occurring in the usual joint trial and existed only because of the logistics of managing two separate juries. The risk of error arising from the procedure was clearly outweighed by judicial economy, witness convenience and the possibility of prejudice or inconsistent verdicts which might result from sequential trials.