The D.C. Court of Appeals has thrown out a man's murder convictions and ordered a new trial, ruling that a judge erred when replacing a juror during the original trial.
Frank Leon Johnson was convicted
of charges including first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder in the death of Reginald Brighthart, who was killed in April 2003 in a Southeast D.C. apartment.
At trial, the prosecution's star was an eyewitness who said that Johnson shot Brighthart several times in the head.
The defense, however, argued that the eyewitness -- an admitted perjurer testifying as a result of plea agreements -- was responsible for the murder and had manipulated other witnesses.
During the trial, jurors were allowed to submit written questions, which the judge could ask witnesses. One juror asked the most questions, including many directed to the eyewitness about his credibility.
The juror also asked if she could talk to a medical professional because she was finding it difficult to "deal with the strong emotional reactions to evidence being presented." Additionally, she mentioned that she might have missed some testimony.
After closing arguments, the prosecution asked the judge to replace the juror, and the defense objected. The judge decided to replace the juror, stating, "I don't see that there's any, quote, misconduct. But I believe that I have the discretionary authority to make [the juror] the second alternate."
The appeals court opinion stated that the judge erred in replacing the juror. The three-judge panel deciding the case wasn't sure whether Johnson would have been found guilty had the juror not been replaced -- especially considering that most of her questions were about the eyewitness's credibility.
Glenn Ivey, a former Prince George's County state's attorney and assistant U.S. attorney who is now a defense attorney, told The Washington Examiner that it is probably "somewhat unusual" to overturn a conviction because of juror substitution. When jurors are switched, both prosecutors and defense lawyers routinely agree to the change -- such as when a juror has an emergency with a child, Ivey said.
Abbe Smith, a law professor at Georgetown University, said that if judges are going to allow jurors to ask witness questions, they might find jurors who are "particularly inquisitive" or "idiosyncratic."
Although she said that the trial judge in this case is very smart and experienced, "a judge just can't intuitively decide 'this juror is not fit to sit.' "