The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a Tennessee juror’s Facebook message to a medical examiner during a murder trial could have poisoned the jury’s final verdict. The high court hasn’t thrown out the conviction yet and ordered a new trial for William Darelle Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison three years ago. The court concluded that the trial judge erred upon learning of the juror’s social media communication with a key prosecution witness. The justices unanimously decided a new trial might be necessary in the administration of justice if the state cannot prove that the juror shouldn’t be disqualified.
“If, for any reason, the trial court is unable to conduct a full and fair hearing with regard to juror (Glenn Scott) Mitchell’s improper extrajudicial communication with Dr. (Adele) Lewis, then the trial court shall grant Mr. Smith a new trial,” the Supreme Court ruled.
Smith was accused of murdering Zurisaday Villanueva, who was found dead on June 4, 2007 along with two .9 mm shell casings. The two had been living together. The trial started in March of 2010. Jurors were told, as all who are properly instructed are, they “should not talk with any witnesses, defendants or attorneys involved in this case,” among other things. Smith’s cousin testified that Smith told her that the pistol just “went off” by accident when the two were arguing striking her in the chest and then went off again hitting her in the head when he tried to move her body. The prosecution presented the jury with evidence that Villanueva’s blood was in Smith’s car. Dr. Lewis, the assistant medical examiner, performed the autopsy.
An hour into deliberations, Dr. Lewis e-mailed the presiding Judge Seth Norman that she had been contacted via social media by a juror who was an acquaintance of hers.
The juror posted, “A-dele!! I thought you did a great job today on the witness stand. … I was in the jury … not sure if you recognized me or not!! You really explained things so great!!” Lewis responded by saying she thought she recognized the juror, then warned of “a risk of a mistrial if (this) gets out.” The juror wrote back that he was aware and hadn’t mentioned that he knew Lewis to anyone.
This means that not only did the juror not disclose in voir dire that he knew someone on the witness list and the nature of their relationship, he purposefully concealed it knowing it was wrong. The first time the juror-witness communication came up in official court proceedings was after the verdict. Public defender Mike Engle asked the court about the exchange and the judge cut him off saying, “No, I’m satisfied with the communication that I have gotten with Dr. Lewis with regard to this matter.” Smith asked for a new trial, but the judge said that it was up to him to decide if a juror is impartial.
“The public’s confidence in the fairness of the system” requires that all jurors be held “accountable to the highest standards of conduct,” the justices said the trial court should have taken “steps to assure that the juror has not been exposed to extraneous information or has not been improperly influenced.”
The justices point out that this all could have been handled properly with a hearing and investigation, but neither occurred. The TN Supreme Court ordered a hearing on the Facebook communication and an investigation into the juror’s impartiality.
“Even though technology has made it easier for jurors to communicate with third parties and has made these communications more difficult to detect,” the court wrote it does not change the appropriate and important pre-Internet precedents.