Inmate Chatter Spoiled Murder Trial Conviction

     CHICAGO (CN) – A juror may have prejudiced a murder trial by listening to inmate chatter about the defendant’s innocence, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     Virgil Hall was convicted in 2001 of murdering his 3-year-old stepson while his wife was running errands. The boy had suffered severe injuries to the head, chest, abdomen and scrotum, and he suffered a laceration to the ligament that holds the head to cervical spine. Hall claimed to have accidentally knocked the child off a workbench.
     During the trial in Indiana, Hall happened to be incarcerated at the same facility as the son of juror David Daniels.
     Hall discovered the connection shortly after he was sentenced to 65 years in prison. Early in the trial, the juror’s son had allegedly told his father that he believed Hall was innocent. Later, however, the juror allegedly learned that his son and other inmates no longer felt Hall was innocent.
     The trial court refused to let Hall depose all members of the jury, and the Indiana Appeals Court affirmed after finding that state law prevented jurors from discussing the basis of their decision.
     On remand, the trial court determined that Hall was not prejudiced even though the information had reached the jury. The appeals court again affirmed, albeit reluctantly, suggesting that the state should have to prove that improper, extraneous information that reaches the jury did not cause prejudice to a defendant.
     After Hall exhausted his postconviction options in Indiana, a federal judge found that the state courts had ruled contrary to established law.
     In Remmer v. U.S., the Supreme Court found that states must hold a hearing to determine prejudice, with burden on the state, when extrajudicial information reaches a jury.
     U.S. District Judge Jon DeGuilio in South Bend ordered Indiana to release Hall or grant him a new trial, noting that the prosecution would be unable to prove that Hall was not prejudiced.
     The Chicago-based 7th Circuit agreed Wednesday that the trial court had erred, but it declined to find whether prejudice had actually occurred.
     “In our opinion, whether this is a reasonable reading of Remmer and its progeny depends upon how ‘jury tampering’ is defined,” Judge Joel Flaum wrote for a three-member panel. “If ‘jury tampering’ can be understood to include extraneous contacts with jurors that are not made with the intention of affecting the jury’s verdict, then this limitation placed upon Remmer may be reasonable. If, however, ‘jury tampering’ is confined to considered attempts at altering the jury’s deliberations or verdict, this interpretation of the Remmer presumption is too narrow.”
     “It may be a significant challenge for the state to convince the district court that such highly prejudicial information might not have had an impact on the jury’s verdict, but this is a matter better addressed by a trial court,” Flaum added.
     The South Bend federal court must determine prejudice on remand.

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