DADE CITY — Nearly eight months after a Dade City teen was found guilty of a 2010 murder, an anonymous letter writer who claims to have been a juror in the case says the verdict may have been tainted.
A letter sent to the public defender’s office in Dade City last month was not signed or marked with a juror’s number to identify the writer. The letter, which has been read by the trial judge, has been placed in the case file, but no action has been taken.
Harleme Larry, who was 14 at the time of the shooting death of Agustin Hernandez in Dade City and is now 18, was found guilty of first-degree murder in June following two days of testimony. Deliberations took place over two days.
Larry was sentenced in September to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 25 years.
The letter alleges some in the jury room during deliberations spoke about information that was not available to them in the courtroom. The writer suggests it came from news accounts of the trial’s coverage.
“It was not apparent at the time, or even noticed by me, which I cannot speak for any of the other jurors,” the letter said, “that there was an incredible amount of information being said inside that jury room that was absolutely NOT information any of the jurors were privileged to know!!!! Information that was confusing and confounding!”
“None of this was clear to me until the very next day,” the letter writer said. “Not until I took the time to actually look up this information and read about it myself. Everything that was true, but unknown to the jury, was there, flying around in that jury room! I just felt saddened and angry.”
Attorneys Tom Hanlon and Dillon Vizcarra of the public defender’s office, who represented Larry during the trial, want the juror to come forward.
“Right now, the case is under appeal, so we’ve got to get permission to get this thing back into the trial court,” Vizcarra said. “What we’d like to see happen, 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.
“If the jurors were given inappropriate information and it had a bearing on their verdict, I would think that any judge would grant a new trial and would start over with things the way they should be and not the way they were in this particular case.”
The appeals process, which is underway, is expected to take a minimum of two years.
Vizcarra and Hanlon said they have never had a similar situation arise after a trial.
“In 30 years, this is my first time,” Hanlon said.
If there is ever an issue, it’s usually addressed well before a verdict is handed out, Vizcarra said.
“Most jurors, what they do is they bring it up to the bailiff,” Vizcarra said. “There’s a bailiff responsible for their welfare and answering any questions, kind of like a liaison between the judge and themselves. They would bring (any issue) up to the bailiff’s attention, and then the judge will deal with it right then.”
Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia, who with Phil Matthey prosecuted the case, said questions have to be asked if there is any validity to the letter. Furthermore, why was it sent anonymously?
“The difficulty in this is, is that letter truly from a juror that sat on the case or is that letter from an anonymous person that didn’t sit on the case,” Garcia said. “Because if you were that concerned with what transpired in the jury room and concerned that the defendant did not get a fair shake or a fair trial and you were that adamant, then why wouldn’t you want it known that you are the person that’s writing this letter?”
And just like the defense attorneys, Garcia has also never had a juror — anonymous or otherwise — write a letter about the deliberation process.
Both sides agree there is the possibility that Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa, who presided over the case, could examine the accusation further by having each juror come in and admit or deny writing the letter.
Garcia said it could be a situation where jurors are brought in and no one confesses to writing the letter. Then things get murky.
“Well, 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.”
During the early morning hours of July 10, 2010, Larry approached a group of men near 37303 Oak St. and robbed one of them of $4, according to investigators. One of the men, Hernandez, 31, was shot in his chest. He was taken to a hospital, where he later died.
Two days after the murder, Larry was driven to the Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s District 2 station in Dade City and confessed to the killing. That confession was recorded and later played for the jury of nine women and three men during the trial.
Larry testified he was coerced into a confession by his friend Derrick Wright. He said he was driven to the station by Wright’s aunt, while Larry and Wright sat in the car and went over a phony confession.
Larry is housed in the Suwannee Correctional Institution in Live Oak. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2039.
“We need somebody to be able to come back and do the right thing,” Hanlon said. “Evidently, there was something that we didn’t know about, that nobody knew about and (someone wrote the letter) anonymously. We need someone to come forward and say, listen, this was a 14-year-old kid, we need to do everything we can to make sure justice is right.”