Juror-Turned-Witness Dooms Drug Conviction

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – An excused juror’s testimony violated the right to a fair trial of a man facing drug charges, a California appeals court found in a ruling published Friday.
     In 2014, a jury found Marcus Morris guilty of possession of cocaine base for sale after prosecutors introduced evidence of small amounts of the drug and digital scales found at Morris’ Long Beach address.
     Morris was sentenced to an aggregate term of 13 years in county jail, according to the Second Appellate District, which reversed the conviction. Morris will now get a new trial.
     The court reversed in an unpublished opinion in June. Morris’ attorney Anthony Solis said he had joined the public defender’s office in petitioning the court to publish because the case it relied on, People vs. Sanders, was published in another district 27 years ago. Initially, the court agreed but then granted the state’s motion for a rehearing on a legal point in the case. The revised and published complaint was reissued Friday.
     Solis said he is not surprised the court reversed.
     “The court of appeals said having former jurors testify back to a jury that they were once part of is fraught with peril, and I think the message is not to do that,” Solis said.
     During the police raid on Feb. 7, 2012, police also found $6,000 in cash inside a Nike shoebox and $1,552 in the drawer of a television stand. That evidence was used to persuade the jury of Morris’ intent to sell.
     As part of his defense, Morris’ attorney called Mary Vinoya to the stand as witness. She testified under oath that she lived in the bedroom and the cash found in the shoebox was her savings. The money in the drawer also belonged to her, she told the court.
     The juror, identified as “Juror No. 10,” was excused from the trial after he told the court that while in a restroom stall at court he overheard someone he believed to be Morris talking on a phone.
     “Don’t worry about it. There’s some money in your pink shoes in the shoebox … You might have to come to testify … There’s some money that I put in your shoes – your pink shoes in the shoebox,” the man in the restroom had said, according to the juror.
     After the court excused the juror, the prosecution asked him to take the stand because his evidence challenged the creditability of Vinoya’s testimony.
     Over the objections of Morris’ attorney, Superior Court Judge Richard Romero ruled that the evidence was admissible.
     Writing for the three-judge panel, Second Appellate District Presiding Judge Tricia Bigelow found his decision prejudiced Morris.
     “We find the error implicated Morris’ constitutional due-process right to a fair trial, and that the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” Bigelow wrote.
     If Romero had declared a mistrial, the juror could have taken the stand providing Vinoya again testified that the cash belonged to her, Bigelow said. But by “virtue of their shared-jury experience,” the risk that the remaining jurors favored his testimony violated Morris’ rights, she wrote.
     “While the evidence of possession was overwhelming, the evidence of defendant’s intent to sell was not,” Bigelow added, noting that Morris’ defense hung on Vinoya’s testimony.
     The juror’s “testimony impeaching Vinoya – the only defense witness – was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Reversal is therefore required,” Bigelow wrote.
     Judge Madeleine Flier and Judge Elizabeth Grimes concurred.
     A state prosecutor did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

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