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Judge Axes Verdict Due to Racist Remarks

Posted Dec 3, 2007 3:37 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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A federal judge in Utah has thrown out a guilty verdict in an assault case against an American Indian defendant because of jurors' racist remarks during deliberations.

Rather than focusing on the allegations against defendant Kerry Dean Benally, who was accused of assaulting a federal officer investigating a report that Benally was driving erratically, several jury members instead discussed what they claimed were the drinking habits of Native Americans, reports the Salt Lake Tribune. Besides discussing what "they" do when they get drunk, several jurors also reportedly talked about the need to send a message to the reservation about such misbehavior.

Granting a defense motion for a new trial, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball held Nov. 20 "that two jurors had failed to answer honestly during jury selection about whether they had preconceived ideas about American Indians," the newspaper reports. Kimball also noted that the verdict may have been impacted by a juror's discussion during deliberations of similar cases he had heard about from family members in law enforcement. The statements came to the judge's attention because a juror complained to to the defense, several days after the October verdict, about racist remarks she said were made in deliberations.

The U.S. Attorney's Office opposed the motion, and said in a brief alleged juror statements that they lived near a reservation and saw American Indians drink don't prove bias. "Even when bias is shown, a new trial is only required if the misconduct was so prejudicial that defendant did not receive a fair trial," wrote prosecutor Trina Higgins.

The case was heard in federal court because it arose on the Ute Reservation.

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