Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (F6213-99) (Hon. Melvin R. Wright, Trial Judge).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge
Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, REID, Associate Judge, and KING, Senior Judge.
During the course of trial, and after trial, appellant, Leon Richardson, moved for a mistrial and a new trial based upon an allegation of juror bias and taint due to eye contact between two jurors and two defense witnesses.*fn1
The trial court denied both motions. We conclude that the trial judge conducted a proper inquiry into the allegations of improper jury contact and did not abuse his discretion in denying both motions.
Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.
Since the facts of the underlying crimes are irrelevant to our analysis, we focus only on the factual context of the improper juror contact argument that Mr. Richardson presents on appeal. The record shows that Mr. Richardson's trial began on July 11, 2000, and the case was submitted to the jury on July 20, 2000. On July 24, 2000, the trial judge held a conference with government and defense counsel during which he discussed with them the possibility of a pause in the jury's deliberations due to the death of a juror's relative. The judge also informed counsel that two other jurors had sent notes to the court. Juror number 6 wrote:
This note is to advise you of the fact that there was a - - there was very uncomfortable eye contact between the accused, Mr. Leon Richardson's sister . . . and I. Please be advised I do not feel threatened at this point. However, this is only to advise you of the incident.
The second note, sent by Juror number 4, read:
Friday, [July] 21, 2000. As I returned from lunch, Mr. Pedrick Knight, Jr., was standing in close proximity to the entrance to the jury room entrance. He was standing alone. Mr. Knight deliberately made eye contact.
Defense counsel asked for an opportunity to discuss the notes with Mr. Richardson,*fn2 and the trial judge decided to bring the jurors in to let them know about the death of a juror's relative, and the court's plan to put off further jury deliberations until July 31, 2000, to permit the affected juror to attend the out-of-town funeral.
When the trial judge and the attorneys resumed their discussion of the notes from Jurors 4 and 6, defense counsel revealed his conviction that defense witness Knight was not in the court on the day Juror number 4 reportedly saw him. Defense counsel suggested that one possibility was that the juror was "deliberately trying to sabotage the deliberation process." At the suggestion of Mr. Richardson's counsel, the judge decided to question Jurors 4 and 6 about their notes, and to find out whether they discussed their notes with other jurors. Juror number 4 maintained that he had not discussed the note with any other juror, that he was "not intimidated" but was "just following the rules" to disclose any contact. In response to defense counsel's question whether the contact with Mr. Knight "might influence [the juror's] ability to be fair and impartial," Juror number 4 said: "Of course not. As I told you before, I'm simply following the rules that [were] stated. That's all. That's all I'm doing." After Juror number 4 left the courtroom, defense counsel requested "an opportunity to bring Mr. Knight down and put him under oath. . . ." The judge expressed reluctance to grant defense counsel's request because it might "call for [him] to make a credibility finding whether to believe the . . . juror versus the witness," and he was "not inclined to make that kind of a decision." Defense counsel suggested that if Mr. Knight was not present in court on the day Juror number 4 claimed to have seen him, that would "go to the [juror's] ability to be able to recall" and would indicate that the juror "is not competent" and "should not be on [the] jury." Furthermore, "[i]t is prejudicial to the defendant, if we have a juror in this case who is incompetent."
Government counsel asserted that Juror number 4 saw "someone he believed to be Mr. Knight and given that, . . . the only real issue is . . . how if any has that affected his ability to deliberate in a fair and just manner." After further discussion, the trial judge declared, in part: "The court will deny the defense motion to bring in the witness Pedrick Knight . . . . The key . . . is whether or not this incident, if it occurred, would affect his ability to continue as a juror. He's indicated it does not. And the court will stand as to that." At defense ...