Crime Scene Visit Forces Mistrial
September 26, 2006
A judge declared a mistrial Thursday in a murder case after learning two jurors checked out the site of the 2003 killing on their own during the trial.
State District Judge Mike Erwin found out about the improper visits five minutes into jury deliberations.
After hours of talking to the attorneys and questioning jurors one-by-one about whether the visit would compromise the deliberations, Erwin declared the mistrial.
He ordered the two jurors to return to his Baton Rouge courtroom next week, saying he might hold them in contempt of court – an offense that carries up to six months in jail.
The second-degree murder trial was for Devechie Hines, who is accused of shooting Michael Charles in a parking lot on Sherwood Valley Court.
Attorneys delivered their closing arguments Thursday afternoon. The alternate juror, Mark Jordan, was dismissed because he was no longer needed. Defense attorney Francis “Bo” Rougeou said he talked to Jordan after the other jurors retired.
“He told me that he would have voted for guilty because he went out there to check out the lighting,” Rougeou said after court. “I was thinking to myself, ‘What is this man saying to me?’ I was flabbergasted.”
Rougeou said he wrote down what Jordan told him and sent the note to the judge.
About 3 p.m., Erwin – holding the yellow note – called the jurors back into the courtroom. Once they arrived, Erwin stood to leave, but before reaching the door stopped to scold them.
“Every time you walk out of this courtroom, I told you not to talk about this case,” he said. “Now I found out you have.”
Erwin slammed the door as he left and called the attorneys to his office. Soon the jurors began going to the judge’s chambers one at a time.
Upon returning the courtroom, Erwin sent the jurors to the deliberations room so the prosecution and defense could argue about how to proceed.
“For God’s sake, don’t talk about the case right now,” Erwin pleaded with the jurors. “You can talk about the bad calls in the LSU football game, but don’t talk about the case.”
Rougeou asked for a mistrial, saying he didn’t think one of the jurors, identified as James Berry, was being truthful.
With Jordan – the lone alternate for the trial – out of the picture, no one was left to replace Berry, Rougeou said.
Erwin called Berry back to the courtroom. From the witness stand, Berry admitted for the first time that he, too, visited the scene of the killing, saying he went there about 9 a.m. Thursday. Berry had not told the judge and attorneys about the visit during the one-on- one questioning in Erwin’s chamber.
Jordan apparently went to the scene of the killing the night before and talked about it with other jurors, defense attorney Samuel “Chuck” Ward said after court.
Erwin grilled Berry about not being honest about his visit to the crime scene.
Erwin said he found it “almost incredulous” when Berry testified that he didn’t think about admitting the visit while being questioned in the judge’s chambers.
After declaring a mistrial, Erwin said he didn’t think there was any sinister motive behind the two jurors visiting the site of the killing.
“My thoughts have ranged to fining you and putting you in jail for six months for contempt of court,” Erwin said. “Today would not be a good day to do that. Sometimes it’s better to let a little time go by.”
Erwin said he had no choice but to declare a mistrial. He said he did not know whether Berry was deliberately hiding something, whether he feared retribution if he were candid or whether he had been untruthful for some other reason.
“The last possibility makes me very suspect as to whether or not this person and jury can be trusted,” Erwin said.
Erwin said the incident marked the first time in his 25 years as a judge or prosecutor that he’s seen a trial cut short because a juror visited the scene of the crime.
After court, Jordan and Berry declined comment.
Hines’ other defense attorney, Ward, said having gone through the entire trial gives the defense a clear understanding of the state’s case, including two last-minute witnesses.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a win or a loss,” Ward said.
Rougeou said that while he may have prevailed in getting the mistrial, it might have been better if he hadn’t.
Rougeou said the jurors who took part in the deliberations – as an alternate, Jordan was not involved – were 11-0 in favor of acquitting his client. Rougeou said he did not speak with Berry and did not know how he was leaning.