By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
Jan. 24, 2008
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
Readers of this column may recall the discussion of issues that arose in the 2006 trial of Christopher McCowen, an African American trash collector convicted in the murder of Christa Worthington. The case brought national attention to the Cape Cod town of Truro. In 2002 Worthington, a white, transplanted Manhattan fashion writer, was found dead of a single stab wound to the chest. Found with Worthington was her two year old daughter, who had remained with her mother's lifeless body more than a day before they were discovered.
Autopsy results revealed the presence of semen that led to DNA testing. Police conducted a "DNA dragnet" asking scores of area men to voluntarily submit to DNA testing.
McCowen had been required to submit to DNA testing which led to a match with the semen found on the victim. McCowen was arrested and after extensive interrogation by the police eventually admitted to having sex with Worthington, claiming it was consensual. Worthingotn had been brutally assaulted, also, and McCowen blamed his confederate, Fraser, for the physical assault that he claimed occurred after consensual sex.
At the trial McCowen's attorney, Robert George, raised the issue of his client's limited intellect, claiming that his IQ of 68 rendered him incapable of resisting the claimed coercive efforts of the police. The trial judge refused to suppress the statement. While not a confession it nonetheless established McCowen's presence at the time and place of her demise. Attorney George argued the issue of the voluntariness of this statement to the jury as well.
Jurors deliberated for days and reported they were deadlocked. One of the jurors was removed for misconduct and an alternate seated. The jury was required to begin its deliberations again with the replacement and two days later returned a guilty verdict.
Within days of the verdict three jurors, including the one who had been removed, contacted McCowen's lawyer and provided affidavits claiming that certain jurors had made racially insensitive remarks during deliberations. Judge Gary Nickerson agreed to the extraordinary request to conduct a hearing and question the 12 jurors about the remarks that were alleged.
Jury deliberations are generally regarded as sacred. Lawyers are not permitted to seek out jurors to probe them on the nature of their deliberations in attempts to seek a new trial. This unusual remedy required that the jurors come forward and discuss whether the claims of racial insensitivity occurred and whether it affected their deliberations.
Juror Roshena Bohanna, the only black female on the panel, testified that she heard racial remarks before and during deliberations and also while sequestered in a hotel. Any discussion of the evidence prior to the jury being formally presented with the case is a violation of the court's directions and improper. Jurors are reminded at each recess that they should not discuss the case until given the matter by the court after arguments of counsel and jury instructions from the judge. Even when deliberations have commenced, jurors are warned that there should be no discussion of the case unless all of the members of the jury are present. Any discussion of the case that may have occurred at the hotel while they were sequestered would clearly violate the court's orders.
Judge Nickerson questioned each of the jurors on the accusations made by Ms. Bohanna. In addition, the defense presented testimony from Sam Sommers, an assistant professor of psychology from Tufts University. Sommers presented opinions that racial stereotypes are very pervasive, in particular the association of black men with violent tendencies. The case has been continued to February 1st and there will be no quick decision by the court.
Judge Nickerson was required to balance the need to preserve the secrecy and sanctity of jury deliberations against the rights of the defendant to be tried on the evidence, not his race. If jury deliberations are influenced by the color of a defendant's skin there is no integrity to the process. If the judge is convinced that the remarks occurred in violation of his orders he has the authority to order a new trial. Regardless of the strength of the Commonwealth's case, due process requires that justice be served in a racially neutral setting, anything else offends the rights guaranteed to all by the Constitution.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com