MILWAUKEE (CN) – One curious juror’s research has cast doubt on a $2 million verdict in favor of a man subjected to an illegal strip search by the Milwaukee Police Department.
Former police officer Michael Vagnini, infamous for serving jail time and facing more than a dozen civil lawsuits for the public and unauthorized searches of almost exclusively black men, was ordered to pay his share of the damages to Willie Newman after just two days of trial.
Newman claims Vagnini, along with officers Jeffrey Cline and Paul Martinez, ordered him to exit his vehicle at gunpoint as he sat in a restaurant parking lot on April 30, 2010, according to his federal lawsuit.
Vagnini then handcuffed Newman and, in the middle of the parking lot, unbuckled his belt and pulled down his pants and underwear, exposing his genitalia to the officers and onlookers, the complaint states.
Vagnini then “used his bare hands to search under Mr. Newman’s scrotum and recovered a plastic bag containing marijuana,” Newman claims.
The jury found the search was unreasonable and that Cline and Martinez failed to intervene and, on Nov. 23, ordered each of the three officers to pay their share of $1.99 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
But one juror – referred to as “Juror Number One” in court papers – may have tainted the decision by introducing research she had done into other jury awards, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin found Monday.
“Acting on a hunch that jurors might have based their verdict upon matters outside the record,” the Milwaukee City Attorney’s office directed a paralegal to check public forums for evidence, including Facebook, according to Duffin’s six-page report.
Based on a post Juror Number One made, and the ensuing comments that indicated she had researched awards in similar cases, the city filed a motion to determine whether the verdict was based on “extraneous evidence.”
Juror Number One testified that she did not do any research before or during the trial, but that she is a “researcher by nature” and did look into similar cases after the close of the trial.
The foreperson testified that Juror Number One did not introduce any information on compensation in similar cases, but she had offered, and other jurors accepted, her information on payouts in unrelated civil cases.
In any case, the foreperson said, she did not believe Juror Number One was speaking from personal experience.
Duffin found the testimonies to be in conflict.
“Based upon the court’s observations of the witnesses during the hearing, the testimony of the witnesses, and evidence presented with the defendants’ motion, the court finds that the greater weight of the credible evidence supports the finding that Juror Number One did do research on payouts in other civil actions during the trial and before the jury rendered its verdict,” Duffin wrote. (Emphasis in original.)
Acknowledging the “well-established and strong public policy against post-verdict inquiries into the decision-making of the jury,” Duffin nonetheless sent the case back to presiding U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller.
The city’s post-trial motions must be filed by Jan. 11, 2017, and Newman must respond by Feb. 10, 2017.
Miriam Horwitz with the Milwaukee City Attorney’s office said she would not comment on the case.
Ronald Bornstein, who represents Newman, did not immediately return a voicemail Wednesday morning.