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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Unsigned letter invites mischief

Tom Hanlon says in 30 years as an assistant public defender, he never has seen anything like it: an after-the-verdict letter from a juror alleging misconduct among the panelists. The principle charge is not trivial: During deliberations, facts not presented at trial were asserted, telling details, the letter’s author claims, available only to someone snooping through contemporaneous reports in local newspapers.

Now, anyone who’s ever watched more than a couple of “Law & Order” episodes knows judges warn against extracurricular reading the moment the jury is impaneled. If provable, then, the claim would almost certainly provide grounds for vacating the verdict and ordering a new trial.

Such a reversal would not be insignificant to 18-year-old Harleme Larry, marking a life sentence on a first-degree murder conviction in the 2010 shooting death of Agustin Hernandez in Dade City. Larry, who was 14 when Hernandez was killed, wouldn’t be eligible for parole until he’d served 25 years. That’s a long stretch by anybody’s calendar, so it’s incumbent upon the legal system to make sure these things are properly buttoned up.

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Which is why, as an admirably relentless advocate for the accused, Hanlon wants the letter’s account verified.

Here’s the first problem with that: The writer is anonymous.

Here’s the next: The letter reveals no insights that would have been unique to the 12 in the jury room. Anybody who had been following the trial could have written it.

Nonetheless, Hanlon and his partner, Dillon Vizcarra, want trial judge Pat Siracusa to attempt to identify and interview the writer.

“What we’d like to see happen,” Vizcarra told the Pasco Tribune’s Eddie Daniels, “if they would interview the jurors, and of course find out if there was something inappropriate done, which is clearly what happened with the jurors.”

Actually, no, that’s not at all clearly what happened.

Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia, who led the prosecution that resulted in Larry’s conviction eight months ago, sniffs a rat.

Suppose the judge does haul everyone in, and no one confesses. “Where does that put us?” Garcia said. “Obviously, somebody was tampering with the judicial system then if it wasn’t any of the jurors that were there.”

“Obviously” might be stretching things, too. The idea that the judge couldn’t get anyone to own up might suggest there’s been outside tampering, but it’s hardly conclusive. If a juror went to the all the trouble of unburdening himself (herself?) in such an inflammatory letter, but still chose anonymity despite the stakes for Larry, it stands to reason the writer wouldn’t necessarily be uncloaked simply by being summoned to the judge’s chambers. Timidity is as timidity does.

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Besides, there are other, larger problems with what Hanlon and Vizcarra propose. Stipulated, doing justice by defendants is our legal system’s foremost duty. But virtually coequal is the system’s obligation to represent the people. Key to that proper representation is the willingness, however grudging, of the people to serve on juries.

Well. You want to turn grudging compliance into vigorous resistance? Start hauling former panelists in to be debriefed by judges based on the complaint of anonymous letter writers. Because the first time you do it absolutely guarantees it won’t be the last.

Even if this particular missive’s author is legitimate — and I’m not saying it isn’t — once it’s established that nothing more than an unsigned letter is required to disrupt a jury’s verdict and cast doubt on the members’ honesty, it’s over. Trials may end and jurors may be excused, but they never again will be dismissed.

What Hanlon and Vizcarra want Siracusa to do is open the door to endless mischief. The judge, who dropped a copy in the case file but otherwise has moved on to other concerns, is wise to resist.

The burden, for better or worse, is on the juror — if that person truly exists — to make himself known, if only to the judge. It’d be easy. Borrow a phone. Call Siracusa’s office for an appointment. Tell them the anonymous juror wants to verify his credentials, and do it.

Then, and only then, will counsels and the court have something to discuss. Otherwise, the unsigned letter has taken up more time than it’s worth.

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