The Illinois Supreme Court issued one opinion on Thursday, April 7.
People v. Moon , 2022 IL 125959
By Kerry J. Bryson, Office of the State Appellate Defender
Omega Moon was charged with one count of domestic battery, alleging that she caused bodily harm to a child by striking the child several times with a belt. Moon opted to proceed to jury trial. Once the jury was selected, the court asked the clerk to swear in the jurors, but the clerk erroneously administered the voir dire oath (swearing that they will truthfully answer voir dire questions) rather than the trial oath. Moon was thus tried and convicted by an unsworn jury.
Moon did not object to the unsworn status of the jury prior to trial, but did challenge the lack of a jury oath in her post-trial motion. The trial court ultimately admitted the error but declined to grant Moon a new trial on the basis that she had not showed prejudice where the jury was properly questioned during voir dire. The appellate court agreed that it was clear error to give the jury the wrong oath, but declined to find plain error and affirmed Moon’s conviction.
The Illinois Supreme Court also agreed with the trial and appellate courts that the failure to properly swear in the jury was a clear error. The Court then went on to find that this was plain error under the second prong of the plain error rule, specifically holding that trial by an unsworn jury constitutes structural error not subject to harmless error analysis. In reaching this conclusion, the Court clarified that structural error under second-prong plain error is not limited to those categories of structural error identified by the United States Supreme Court. Instead, the Court “may determine that an error is structural as a matter of state law regardless of whether it is deemed structural under federal law.”
Both the Illinois and federal constitutions guarantee a criminal defendant the right to an impartial jury, and the administration of the trial oath serves to effectuate that right in Illinois. Under the Illinois constitution, the jury trial right is guaranteed “as heretofore enjoyed,” or as that right generally existed at common law. Analyzing the common law jury trial right, the Illinois Supreme Court concluded that an essential part of the right to an impartial jury was to have the jury sworn with a trial oath. This right is “firmly entrenched” in Illinois law, as well as in other jurisdictions, dating back even farther than the ratification of Illinois’ first constitution in 1818.
Thus, the Illinois constitution’s guarantee of the right to trial by an impartial jury includes the requirement that the jury be sworn with a trial oath. The purpose of the trial oath is to impress upon the jurors their sacred duty to render a true verdict in accordance with the law and the evidence. It is a necessary component of ensuring the right to an impartial jury. And the complete failure to swear in the jury with the trial oath is of such gravity that it threatens the integrity of the judicial process, rendering it second prong plain error.
The Court also noted that jeopardy does not attach until the jury is sworn, thus it is an essential part of the constitutional protection against double jeopardy. If a defendant were acquitted by an unsworn jury, there would be no double jeopardy bar to the State retrying him for the same offense because jeopardy had never attached.
The Illinois Supreme Court thus reversed Moon’s conviction and sentence and remanded the matter to the circuit court for a new trial.