A federal appeals court has reversed a murder conviction after finding that, unlike the story in Twelve Angry Men, a lone juror was improperly dismissed during deliberations after indicating he would find the defendant not guilty.

“Consider two scenes,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit wrote in a unanimous opinion on March 23.

Outlining the first scene, he quoted from the 1957 film in which the holdout juror, when asked why he would vote not guilty, said: “We’re talking about somebody’s life here. We can’t decide in five minutes. Supposin’ we’re wrong.” (Fonda’s character eventually persuades his fellow jurors to acquit a murder defendant.)

The second scene occurred in the case at hand, during which a man identified as Juror No. 6 told the other jurors that “this is a very important case and we should be very convinced that if the defendant is found guilty that it is beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Richard Romero dismissed Juror No. 6 for “bias.” An alternative juror joined with the panel in convicting the defendant of murder.

Reinhardt, in an opinion joined by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte, sitting by designation, wrote that the dismissal violated the defendant’s 6th Amendment right to a fair trial.

Twelve Angry Men made for great drama because it violated the sanctity of the jury’s secret deliberations by allowing the audience into the jury room,” Reinhardt wrote. “It was, of course, a work of fiction. We are presented here with a similar intrusion into heated deliberations involving a holdout juror, except that this one took place in open court, and it resulted in a woman being convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment after the holdout was dismissed.”

Kurt Hermansen of the Law Office of Kurt David Hermansen in San Diego, who represents defendant Tara Sheneva Williams, praised the ruling as having overturned an “unfounded” decision.

“I thought starting out [Reinhardt's opinion] with Twelve Angry Men was appropriate, because we’ll never know what would’ve happened if the holdout juror was able to remain on the jury, and the judges on this panel took a very, very close look at the transcripts,” he said. “Maybe, like in Twelve Angry Men, he would’ve turned people around.”

Williams was a 20-year-old woman sitting in the car when two of her friends attempted to rob a liquor store in Long Beach, Calif., in 1993. After leaving the store, one of her friends returned and, after emptying the cash register, shot and killed the clerk.

Prosecutors charged Williams and the gunman with first-degree murder with special circumstances. They were tried separately. After being convicted, Williams was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

According to the opinion, the foreman had given Romero two notes following two days of deliberation.

One note said: “I wish to inform you that we have one juror who: 1) has expressed an intention to disregard the law…and 2) has expressed concern relative to the severity of the charge.”

Romero questioned the foreman and Juror No. 6, after which prosecutors sought to dismiss the holdout. At that time, the judge said he was inclined to find that Juror No. 6 had engaged in misconduct because he was applying a “higher burden of proof that the law requires” when he said the panel should be “very convinced” of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Romero questioned the remaining jurors and then dismissed Juror No. 6 “not because he’s not deliberating and not because he’s not following the law” but because he is “a biased juror” and “his mind is bent…against the prosecution.”

The jury, with the alternate in place, convicted Williams the following day.

Williams appealed, claiming that Romero abused his discretion in dismissing the juror, but California’s 2d District Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction. The California Supreme Court reversed, but on remand the 2d District upheld her conviction again, finding that Juror No. 6 had shown “actual bias.” When the California Supreme Court denied a second review, Williams filed for habeas corpus relief in federal court before U.S. District Judge George Wu.

The bid failed, prompting her appeal before the 9th Circuit.

No court previously had addressed the 6th Amendment claim. But the 9th Circuit, addressing solely that claim, found that Romero had dismissed Juror No. 6 due to his views on the merits of the case, not because of bias, and that he had not demonstrated “good cause.”

“Unfortunately, the trial court cut some corners here,” Reinhardt wrote.

The 6th Amendment “does not allow a trial judge to discharge a juror on account of his views of the merits of the case. The jury is the only actor permitted to determine guilt–not the judge,” he wrote.

At least seven jurors, including the foreman, had told Romero during questioning that Juror No. 6 did not believe the evidence was sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, Reinhardt noted.

As for the second element, none of the jurors told the judge that Juror No. 6 appeared biased or that he was unwilling to follow the law, Reinhardt continued. Disagreement with the law, even if that’s “bias” under California law, did not give the judge good cause to remove the juror, he wrote.

Furthermore, there was no record that Juror No. 6 misstated the law when he said a panel should be “very convinced” beyond a reasonable doubt.

“That he was not convinced was not something that showed his bias, but rather a reflection of his current thinking regarding the issues in the case, a thought process to which the trial court should not even have been exposed,” Reinhardt wrote.

California Deputy Attorney General Stephanie Brenan, who handled the appeal for the state, did not return a call for comment. Prosecutors have 60 days to decide whether to retry the case, Hermansen said.

“Normally, what happens is, especially in these times, where the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the release of 33,000 people, maybe they’ll offer her some type of deal to avoid retrying the case,” he said of his client’s future. He referred to the Supreme Court’s May 23 order in a separate case that California must reduce its prison population by nearly 3,000 people during the next two years to avoid “serious constitutional violations,” such as inadequate health care and living conditions for prisoners.

Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at abronstad@alm.com .