Criminal Justice

Facebook exchange threatens murder conviction

A juror’s Facebook message to a prosecution witness during trial threatens to derail a Tennessee man’s first-degree murder conviction.

The Tennessee Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling (PDF) Tuesday, ordered the trial court to conduct a hearing into whether the communication warrants a new trial, CNN reports.

“If, for any reason, this trial court is unable to conduct a full and fair hearing with regard to [the juror’s] improper extrajudicial communication with [the witness], then the trial court shall grant [the defendant] a new trial,” Justice William C. Koch Jr. wrote for the court.

The case involves William Darelle Smith, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for the first-degree murder of his live-in girlfriend, Zurisaday Villanueva. Villanueva had been shot to death and her body left on the side of a road in Nashville.

While the jury was deliberating Smith’s fate, Judge Seth Norman received an email from Dr. Adele Lewis, the assistant county medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Villanueva and who had testified in the case the previous day. Lewis told the judge that juror Glenn Scott Mitchell, a grants manager at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where she had trained, had sent her a Facebook message after she testified.

“A-dele! I thought you did a great job today on the witness stand … I was in the jury…not sure if you recognized me or not! You really explained things so great,” Mitchell wrote.

Lewis responded by saying she thought she recognized Mitchell, but warned him of the risk of a mistrial if that got out.

“I know,” Mitchell replied. “I didn’t say anything about you … It has been an interesting case to say the least.”

It isn’t clear when the judge notified the lawyers about the Facebook exchange. But after the jury reached a verdict, Smith’s lawyer asked the judge if he had said anything to Mitchell.

“No, I’m satisfied with the communications that I have gotten from Dr. Lewis with regard to the matter,” Norman replied.

Smith later asked for a new trial, in part on the grounds that the defense hadn’t been able to question Mitchell. But the judge denied the motion without comment. And his ruling was later upheld by the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals, which characterized the Facebook exchange as “mere interactions” between a juror and a third person.

But the supreme court disagreed, saying “the public’s confidence in the fairness of the system” requires that all jurors be held “accountable to the highest standards of conduct.” It also said the trial court should have taken steps to ensure that Mitchell had not been exposed to extraneous information or improperly influenced by his acquaintance with the witness.

“Because the trial court erred by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing to ascertain the nature and extent of the improper communications exchanged between Juror Mitchell and Dr. Lewis, we vacate the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the order of the trial court denying Mr. Smith’s motion for a new trial on the ground of juror bias and remand this case to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing consistent with this opinion,” Koch wrote.

Both Smith’s lawyer and the district attorney’s office declined comment, CNN said.

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