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USA v. Felix Vasquez-Ruiz, 06-2180.  Felix Vasquez-Ruiz ostensibly practiced medicine in the Chicago area. In reality, he was bilking insurance companies by ordering a multitude of unnecessary tests for patients who visited his clinic. Eventually he was caught and tried on multiple counts of mail and healthcare fraud.

Nine days into his trial, however, the proceedings took an unexpected and unsettling turn when a juror, Elva Diaz, the only Hispanic member of the jury, complained to the district judge that the word “GUILTY” had mysteriously appeared written in the notebook she had been using during the trial. The anonymous message, she reported, intimidated her.

The district court immediately interviewed the juror to make sure that she could remain impartial; it then issued a cautionary instruction to the rest of the jury. Later, it denied Vasquez-Ruiz’s motion for a mistrial.

Before this court, Vasquez-Ruiz challenges the judge’s refusal to grant a mistrial. We conclude that this incident gave rise to a presumption of prejudice to the defendant, and that the evidence was insufficient to rebut that presumption. Under these circumstances, it was error for the court to refuse to declare a mistrial.

The district judge immediately brought the issue to the parties’ attention and identified two concerns raised by the existence of the note: that Juror Diaz herself may have been influenced by the mysterious writer, and that someone else, perhaps another juror, may have prejudged the case and was potentially trying to sway others on the jury. The district court and the parties attempted to identify the author of the note.

The district court tried to compare the handwriting of the word “guilty” with that of the jurors’ questionnaires, but it failed to detect anything conclusive. At that point, Vasquez-Ruiz moved for a mistrial.

The district court denied the motion on two grounds. First, the judge stated that “it’s not at all clear that this was done by another juror.” Second, the court believed that a curative instruction to the entire jury would be sufficient.

Vasquez-Ruiz’s primary argument on appeal is that the district court mishandled the situation involving Juror Diaz and should have granted his motion for a mistrial on the ground of the apparent presence of juror bias. He challenges the district judge’s decision not to conduct voir dire of each juror to ferret out the person who wrote “GUILTY” in Diaz’s notebook.

The proper standard of review is the familiar abuse of discretion standard, which is the one we use to review an order denying a motion for mistrial based on juror bias. See United States v. McClinton, 135 F.3d 1178, 1186 (7th Cir. 1998).  A mistake of law is automatically an abuse of discretion. See United States v. Jaderany, 221 F.3d 989, 994 (7th Cir. 2000).

There are a number of aspects of this record that give us grave concern. First is the content of the note. Nothing could be more central to the jury’s function than an opinion on ultimate guilt or innocence.

Second is the district court’s assumption that the note could have been written only by another juror or a member of the courthouse cleaning staff. True, those are two logical possibilities, but the third is that another person might have obtained access to Diaz’s notebook and tried to interfere with the jury’s deliberations. This possibility went largely unexplored before the district court.

If the note was written by an outsider, then we must analyze what happened using the line of cases that govern external influences on a jury. The Supreme Court has held that such influence is presumptively prejudicial. See Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227 (1954).

Under Remmer, the burden is on the government to rebut the presumption of prejudice from an external influence on the jury. 327 U.S. at 229. We see no way that the government can satisfy that burden without developing all the information.

The broader point here is to come to a reasoned conclusion on the question whether the district court’s curative steps were adequate. We are not saying, in this connection, that there is an ironclad requirement that individualized voir dire is always necessary.

It is true that the district court tried to address the situation by giving a curative instruction. We have previously found a curative instruction to be sufficient in an instance of serious jury misconduct. United States v. Read, 658 F.2d 1225 (7th Cir. 1981).

Vasquez-Ruiz argues that his case is more like United States v. Resko, 3 F.3d 684 (3d Cir. 1993), than it is like Read.

We come back, in the end, to the lack of information in this record about the source of the notation in Juror Diaz’s notebook. The record is too sparse to permit us to conclude that the government rebutted the presumption of prejudice that arises under Remmer, on the assumption that the writer was someone not on the jury. Even if the writer was another juror, we agree with Vasquez-Ruiz that this case is more like Resko than like Read.

If someone on the jury was trying to pressure Juror Diaz into voting to convict Vasquez-Ruiz, before deliberations began and before the court instructed the jury, then the court might have taken different remedial measures. Perhaps it would have dismissed the miscreant juror; perhaps it would have issued a different cautionary instruction; perhaps it would have declared a mistrial. As it was, however, we conclude that the unexplained apparent attempt by someone to tell Juror Diaz to vote “GUILTY” could be cured only by granting a mistrial.

The judgment of the district court is REVERSED and the case is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

For the full opinions visit the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Web Site.

For more about attorney Michael J. Petro, visit