Thursday, August 24, 2017
C.A. Reverses Convictions Because Juror Had Been Victim’s School Teacher
By a MetNews Staff Writer
HERIBERTO DEJESUS ROMERO
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday reversed the convictions of a man on two counts of assault with intent to commit rape and other offenses in connection with separate attacks on two female joggers, holding that the judge erred in not dismissing from the jury the school teacher of one of the victims.
Justice Jeffrey W. Johnson of Div. One wrote the opinion. It reverses Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Christopher G. Estes.
Johnson found merit in the contention advanced by Valerie G. Wass, appointed counsel for defendant Heriberto Dejesus Romero, that Estes should have removed Juror No. 7 from the panel after she revealed having taught a victim identified as “Marissa G.” He recited that after G. began her testimony, and during a break, the teacher advised the court of her relationship with the victim.
Judge Questions Juror
A hearing was held outside the hearing of other jurors. This dialogue took place:
“The Court: Marissa has testified now, and you’ve heard what your—we’ve discussed during jury selection, your obligation is to be fair and impartial to both sides. That you cannot prejudge the case one way or the other based on anything outside of the evidence that you heard in the four corners of the courtroom. Anything about your contact with Marissa, her being a student of yours a few years ago, do you think is going to affect your ability to be fair and impartial to both sides?
“Juror No. 7: Not really. She was a good student. I remember positives. But I still think I can be fair.
“The Court: Okay. So nothing—the positives were positives that—when she followed through with whatever her obligations were as a student, but anything about those contacts with her is going to cause you to favor her testimony or to prejudge this case in any way?
“Juror No. 7: I don’t think so.”
The defense attorney sought to have Juror No. 7 excused; the prosecutor objected to that; Estes said:
“The Court did make the inquiry of Number 7 and brought the issue up in several different ways: ultimately, would her contact and prior relationship with Marissa affect her ability to be fair and impartial? She indicated that she did not believe it would. The Court will accept her word in that regard.”
Judge Abused Discretion
“[W]e conclude that under these facts, the court abused its discretion in refusing to discharge Juror No. 7. Critically, it does not appear that the court looked beyond Juror No. 7’s statement that she did not ‘think’ her favorable teacher-student relationship with Marissa would affect how she perceived the evidence and participated in deliberations. Therefore, we are not confident that the trial court’s conclusion is manifestly supported by evidence on which the court actually relied….As with any teacher-student relationship, Juror No. 7’s contact with Marissa was relatively sustained—presumably lasting at least the length of an academic term if not an entire school year or longer. That, years later, Juror No. 7 remembered this particular student and could recall both her performance and disposition speaks to the level and depth of the relationship. Juror No. 7’s favorable impression of her former student was especially critical given that the counts involving Marissa relied on Marissa’s credibility and ability to recall the details of the crime.”
He noted that there was DNA evidence in connection with the assault on the other victim, “Brittney P.” which “Romero could not reasonably contest,” but that “Marissa’s case was not so supported, relying exclusively on witness identification rather than forensics.”
Denial of a defendant’s right to an unbiased jury, Johnson said, is a “structural” error, not subject to “harmless error” review, and reversal is mandatory.
The case is People v. Romero, B277631.
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