Criminal Justice

Murder case's 2nd guilty verdict overturned after court discovers juror read case's prior appeals

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A second guilty verdict for a California man accused of sexually assaulting and murdering his 13-year-old half-sister was recently thrown out based on evidence that during trial a juror researched the defendant online and read the appellate opinions regarding his first trial.

Michael Pizarro was sentenced to life in prison in 1990, the Recorder reports. The California Court of Appeal reversed that conviction twice on DNA evidence issues, and Pizarro was granted a new trial.

After his second trial, the Madera County Superior Court learned that a juror read Pizarro’s prior appeals. Besides discovering that Pizarro had been convicted on all counts and sentenced to life in prison, the juror learned of DNA evidence considered at the first trial. That evidence did not not meet court standards, which was why it was kept out of the second trial.

The juror told the court that he felt “lost” during trial, the Recorder reports, and repeatedly looked at the appellate opinions for guidance.

“I was looking at everything,” the juror testified. “I was looking at what people were saying, who said what. I was looking at who was where. I mean, that’s timelines, that’s what a timeline is. Where everybody was at. What they were saying. Who was involved.”

The May 21 opinion (PDF), which describes the juror’s behavior as “criminal,” overturns a trial judge’s order to let Pizarro’s second conviction stand.

“While we agree with the trial judge that the juror misconduct in this case amounted to ‘gross misconduct’ and was ‘absolutely outrageous,’ we disagree with his decision denying the new trial motion,” the appellate court wrote. “Despite the good efforts of the trial judge and the attorneys to conduct the trial in accordance with the rules of evidence, procedure, and substantive law, the juror’s misconduct in disobeying the court’s repeated admonitions and in investigating the case on his own made a mockery of the trial process and prejudiced defendant.”

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