Arkansas Supreme Court Reverses Murder Conviction Where Juror Signed Petition to Reelect the Prosecutor

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Arkansas Supreme Court Reverses Murder Conviction Where Juror Signed Petition to Reelect the Prosecutor

In Stanton v. State, the defendant was prosecuted by Stephanie Barrett while she was seeking signatures supporting her placement on the ballot for a position on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.  Campaign materials with Barrett’s photograph and qualifications were on the bailiff’s security station throughout the first day and a half of trial.

NCSC’s Center for Judicial Ethics reports defense counsel raised the issue the following morning; the deputy prosecutor claimed that a sitting circuit court judge suggested that Barrett solicit signatures from jury pools entering the courthouse and personally engaged in that practice.  Barrett was instructed to hand over the signed petition sheets.  She obtained the sheets at lunch, discovered that a seated juror had signed the petition, yet said nothing until after the evening recess.  Of the nine signatures collected, four belonged to prospective jurors, including one juror who was ultimately selected.

The trial judge denied the defendant’s motion for a mistrial and a subsequent motion for a new trial.  On appeal, the court held that a mistrial should have been granted.  Noting that “the prospective jurors entered the courthouse on the first day of Stanton’s trial under the court’s command,” the court explained that they “became a captive audience bombarded with election petitions from Barrett and at least two other sitting circuit judges.  This is an abuse and exploitation of the judicial system and the fundamental civic responsibility of jury service.”  The court also concluded that “this abuse was furthered by the presence of Barrett’s campaign materials on the bailiff’s security table,” creating “an apparent endorsement by the circuit court” because the bailiff is a member of the court’s security staff and subject to the court’s control.  The court also stated it did not need to find whether the error was harmless because the defendant “had valid reason to believe that his case was being tried before a jury who had been conditioned to give credibility to the prosecutor’s argument” and “in the eyes of the public, the impartiality of justice was shattered.”  It was “troubled by the impact such conduct could have on other individuals entering the courthouse for a trial or hearing.  When solicited for signatures by or on behalf of the prosecutor or presiding judge during or immediately before trial, a defendant, their family, or other parties before the court may reasonably question whether their willingness or refusal to sign the petition could impact the outcome of their case.  This may cause irretrievable damage to the public’s perception of justice and cannot be allowed.”  The court concluded:  “Disturbingly, solicitation of signatures from prospective jurors for political purposes is apparently a common practice for some sitting judges.  Our concerns with Barrett’s conduct apply with equal force to the same conduct taken by sitting judges.”

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During the last day of a weekslong, in-person jury trial of Teron Pratt in Brazo County (Texas), Judge Steve Smith received a call that the incarcerated defendant had tested positive for the coronavirus at the county jail during the prior week.   The Texas Tribune reports this was the first time anyone at the trial (including the defendant) learned of the infection.  Nevertheless, Smith allowed the jury to continue its deliberations regarding guilt or innocence.  When the jury returned to render a verdict, the judge told them they all had been potentially exposed to the virus and recessed the trial for two weeks (including announcement of the verdict).  What would you have done in this situation?

Moscow Murder Trial Postponed Due to Coronavirus Infections

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Federal Judge Rejects Speedy Trial Claim of Detained Defendant Awaiting Trial for 8+ Months

In a thoughtful written opinion, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg (DC) explained why he rejected the Speedy Trial Act and 6th Amendment claims of a co-defendant in a murder case that was set for trial on April 20, 2020.  Boasberg sensitively recognized the health dangers the defendant faced in the closed quarters of a jail where he has been locked up for over two years.  Nevertheless, the judge wrote: “As it has on previous occasions, the Court fully acknowledges the hardship inflicted by Defendant's pretrial detention. It discounts neither the length of that incarceration nor Taylor's understandable desire for finality. No one whose innocence is presumed should be forced to remain in jail any longer than absolutely necessary. The Court likewise remains committed, in coordination with this judicial district, to ensuring he receives his day in court as soon as trial can be held in a manner sufficient to ensure the health and safety of all participants. At the end of the day, however, it cannot find that the pretrial delay in this case violates the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment.”