The D.C. Court of Appeals has overturned a man's murder conviction, finding that the trial judge had given a coercive instruction to the jury.
Delonte C. Fortune had been convicted of second-degree murder and other charges for the 2005 shooting death of Lamont Watkins. In reversing Fortune's convictions Thursday, the appeals court remanded the case for a new trial.
Watkins was gunned down on Aug. 7, 2005, on the 3900 block of Seventh Street NE. During Fortune's short trial in 2009, prosecutors presented no physical evidence and relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses whose credibility was called into question by the defense.
When the jury was deliberating, it sent D.C. Superior Court Judge Michael Rankin three notes saying that it could not reach a unanimous verdict. The third note was sent after the jury had been deliberating for more than eight hours.
In response to the third note, Rankin said to the jurors, "I hate to make myself the odd person out, but I don't agree with the jury, and it's my job to make that kind of a decision." He then instructed the jury to continue deliberating and not "under any circumstances" to disclose "how jurors are voting until after you have reached [a] unanimous verdict."
The jury then notified the court that it had reached a verdict after deliberating for only 93 more minutes. After the convictions were announced and each juror affirmed that he or she had agreed with the verdict, Rankin asked the jurors if they felt he had coerced them into reaching a decision. Two of the 12 jurors said they believed Rankin demanded a verdict.
The judge then declared a mistrial, but two weeks later prosecutors asked Rankin to reconsider that ruling. Rankin then decided to reinstate the convictions, stating that he did not have the authority to question the jurors after he affirmed the verdict.
The appeals court agreed that Rankin's post-verdict inquiry was improper. As a result, the three judges on the appeals court panel did not take the jurors' post-verdict remarks into consideration when determining whether Rankin's instruction was a problem.
Nonetheless, the appeals court decided that Rankin's remark was coercive.
Judges' instructions that juries keep deliberating are usually not coercive when they use neutral language. However, the panel found that Rankin's comment "pointedly [if unintentionally] conveyed the message that he personally wanted and expected a verdict and that the jurors would have to continue deliberating indefinitely until they had one."