By Dillon Coil
For nearly 50 years, the standard set forth in Tellis v. State has governed the duties of a district court judge in Nevada when responding to jury inquiries during deliberations. Under Tellis, the judge has wide discretion in the manner and extent to which the judge answers a jury’s questions during deliberations. Previously, if the judge believed the instructions given were adequate, correctly state the law, and fully advise the jury on the procedures to be followed in deliberation, the judge’s refusal to answer a question already answered in the instructions would not be in error.
The Tellis standard, however, was recently modified in Gonzalez v. State, 131 Nev. Adv. Op. No. 99 (December 31, 2015). Rather than overturning the longstanding rule in Tellis, the Nevada Supreme Court carved out an exception for situations where jury questions suggest confusion or a lack of understanding of a significant element of the applicable law, even where the jury instructions given are adequate and correctly state the law.
Gonazalez involved an appeal from a conviction regarding a motorcycle gang fight in a Sparks casino. On appeal, it was argued that the district court abused its discretion when it refused to answer two questions from the jury seeking clarification regarding the applicability of the law. The first question asked whether a defendant without knowledge of a conspiracy, but whose actions contributed to a conspiracy, may be guilty of conspiracy. The second question asked whether a person may be guilty of both first and second degree murder at the same time. Counsel for both the prosecution and defense agreed that the answer to both questions was no. However, the Court declined to answer the jury’s questions, stating that it would be improper to provide additional instruction, and that the jury should reach a decision on each count separate and apart from each other count.
Without an allegation that the given jury instructions were inadequate or incorrectly stated the law, the Supreme Court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion under Tellis. However, to avoid similar issues in the future, the Court established an exception to the bright-line rule in Tellis for situations where jury questions suggest confusion or lack of understanding of a significant element of the applicable law. In other words, in such situations, the district court would have a duty to provide additional instruction on the law to adequately clarify the jury’s doubt or confusion.
In applying the new exception, the Court reasoned that the jury’s question on conspiracy went to the very heart of that offense, and thus would be an abuse of discretion under the new exception. As to the question pertaining to first and second degree murder, the Court found that because the question did not suggest confusion or lack of understanding of a significant element of first or second degree murder, the district court did not err in refusing to answer the question. Based on the district court’s cumulative errors related to this and other issues on appeal, the Court ultimately found that the defendant was denied a fair trial and the judgment of conviction was reversed and remanded to the district court for a new trial.
This holding is significant because of its potential application to civil trials. Judges in civil trials must likely respond to jury questions that suggest confusion regarding a significant aspect of the law. Attorneys, meanwhile, should advocate for such questions to be answered by the court, or risk potentially having to re-try the case.