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Vermont Supreme Court Overturns Molestation Conviction Because of Juror’s Internet Research

Posted Jan 30, 2012 8:28 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A Somali Bantu immigrant who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl will get a new trial because of a juror’s internet research about his culture.

A trial judge had found the research didn’t affect the guilty verdict against Ali Abdi and wasn’t prejudicial, but the Vermont Supreme Court disagreed in a unanimous opinion.

“There is no doubt that the information related directly to a subject that pervaded the trial from start to finish—Somali Bantu culture and its impact on the behavior and testimony of the trial witnesses,” the court said in its Jan. 26 opinion. The Burlington Free Press has a story.

Abdi had been turned in by elders of the immigrant community who had questioned him about the allegations. According to a trial witness, the culture requires the accused to be asked three times whether he committed the crime. If the accused denies it all three times, he is required to swear on the Koran—and anyone who lies could expect something bad to happen. Abdi reportedly denied the crime twice, and admitted it the third time.

The state also argued that the alleged victim was believable because she told of the assault even though the culture forbids sexual assault victims from marrying another Somali Bantu person. The defense, on the other hand, had argued Abdi’s wife had a motive to lie because the sexual assault would make it possible for her to obtain a wanted divorce under Somali Bantu law.

The court concluded its opinion by noting the increasing problem of jurors consulting the Internet for outside information. “Although Vermont trial courts routinely admonish jurors not to consult outside sources, it may well be time to consider a stronger and more technology-specific admonition,” the court said.

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