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Does a Jury Oath Really Matter?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on August 30, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

At the start of a trial, the judge administers an oath to the jury. The idea behind the oath is to impress upon jurors that they're dealing with a serious matter, and they need to pay attention.

It's kind of a big deal if the jurors aren't sworn in, but an attorney can't just sit on that error in case the trial doesn't go his way, according to a recent Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.

(Brief thanks, Wall Street Journal Law Blog.)

A federal jury convicted Gilbert Turrietta of assaulting a law enforcement officer. The jury reached its verdict despite having never been sworn. The problem would have gone unnoticed were it not for a belated objection from Turrietta's attorney, Charles Knoblauch. He admitted that he knew from the outset of the trial that the jury had not been sworn, yet strategically reserved any objection until a guilty verdict was returned and the jury had dispersed.

The Tenth Circuit noted:

A verdict delivered by an unsworn jury may present an issue of constitutional dimension, as Turrietta contends. But a compelling threshold issue prevents us from resolving that issue. By lying behind the log, Knoblauch failed to preserve the issue he wants us to decide. Quietly harboring an objection until it cannot be addressed effectively is the functional equivalent of making no objection-at the very least, a forfeiture.

Here, the Tenth Circuit found that Turrietta couldn't satisfy the plain error test. Even assuming the failure to administer the oath was constitutional error, the appellate court found that the error was "neither so clear that the district judge can be faulted for refusing to act when it was belatedly called to his attention, nor so grave that failure to correct it on appeal would threaten the integrity of judicial proceedings or result in a miscarriage of justice."

Furthermore, the court posited that rewarding Knoblauch for withholding his objection would compromise the integrity of the proceedings even more than allowing the verdict to stand because "the interests of justice are generally not served by allowing a party to object to an error after the trial has concluded and the party has lost."

Contemporaneous objections are key. If there's a problem in your client's trial, you need to object as soon as you become aware of the error or risk forfeiting your objection.

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