Crime in the Suites: An Analyis of Current Issues in White Collar Defense
Posts Tagged ‘Contempt’
Jun 10

Kansas Juror Found in Contempt for Online Comments During Trial

Two years ago, we anticipated a growing problem with jurors who disregard trial judges’ instructions concerning Internet use. In July 2011, we reported on the first known prosecution of a juror in Great Britain for Internet-related misconduct. Since then, a Florida judge sentenced a Sarasota County juror to three days in jail for criminal contempt. In that case, the juror contacted a civil defendant on Facebook during jury selection and then bragged about his subsequent dismissal after having been seated on the jury. One month later, a New Jersey court found a jury foreman guilty of criminal contempt. In that case, the juror was required to pay a $500 fine for conducting online research into possible penalties the defendant would face if convicted on drug charges.

Kansas has now followed suit. On May 20, 2013, a court in Topeka found James Reeder guilty of criminal contempt for posting online comments while serving as a juror in a murder trial. The trial involved Anceo Stovall, one of nine defendants charged with felony murder and robbery in connection with the shooting death of a Kansas attorney and the wounding of her companion. Stovall also faced charges for unrelated crimes, including burglary of a vehicle and aggravated robbery of a co-defendant. Throughout the month-long trial, the trial judge instructed jurors not to “seek out and read any media accounts” about the crime or the trial.

Reeder didn’t heed the instruction. Soon after the jury began deliberating, Reeder visited the Topeka Capital-Journal’s website and read an article about the case. On July 21, Reeder posted a comment to the site using the pseudonym “BePrepared.” In response to another commenter, Reeder wrote, “Trust me that’s all they got in their little world, as you, I have been there. Remember the pukes names they will do it for ever [sic].”

Three days later, the jury announced that it could not reach a verdict on nine counts related to the felony murder. On the unrelated charges, Stovall was found guilty of aggravated robbery and not guilty of burglary. He requested a new trial on the robbery charge. Among other things, Stovall alleged juror misconduct based on evidence that Reeder had reviewed and commented on trial-related news in violation of the judge’s orders. As a result, Stovall’s robbery conviction was overturned and his motion for new trial granted. Months later, Stovall entered a plea deal and was sentenced to almost 11 years in prison.

Reeder appeared in court last month for his contempt hearing, arguing that his online post had not caused any harm. In one sense, his argument had appeal. The jury failed to reach a verdict on nine charges, so the case was going to be retried regardless. Additional costs for retrying the robbery charge would have been marginal. On the other hand, it was at least possible that Reeder’s misconduct had prevented the jury from reaching a unanimous decision on every count.

The trial judge didn’t care either way. In her view, “[t]here is great harm that results when someone in Mr. Reeder’s position of great trust violates in this way.” Having found the juror guilty of indirect criminal contempt, the court ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine or spend three days in jail. No doubt, the trial judge intends to send a message: jurors like “BePrepared” should be prepared to follow her instructions on Internet use or deal with the consequences.

posted in:
State Criminal
Jul 05

U.K. Juror Gets 8-Month Sentence for Facebook Use

Eight months seems a harsh sentence for a juror who made some ill-considered Facebook posts. Harsh, that is, until you hear the facts. The proceeding against U.K. resident Joanne Fraill is one of the first contempt prosecutions ever against a juror for improper Internet use. And the punishment she received is a reminder that, when pushed, courts have both the power and the will to protect the integrity of the jury system and the rights of criminal defendants to a fair trial.

On June 16, 2011, Fraill was found in contempt of court for improper communications and Internet research she conducted while serving as a juror in a criminal trial. The case involved four defendants who had been charged with drug-related offenses, including Jamie Sewart and her boyfriend, Gary Knox.

The day after jurors acquitted Sewart, while the case was still pending against her three co-defendants, Fraill contacted Sewart on Facebook. Using the pseudonym “Jo Smilie,” Fraill messaged, “You should know me, I’ve cried with you enough.” Sewart replied and asked about a charge against one of her co-defendants. Fraill answered that “no one [on the jury was] budging.” Fraill then asked Sewart not to disclose their communications because “they could call mmiss trial [sic] and I will get 4cked to0.” Minutes later, Fraill told Sewart, “Dont worry about that chge no way it can stay hung for me lol.” The chat log further disclosed that the two had been communicating in court with nods and blinks.

The following day, Sewart told her attorney about the incident. When confronted, Fraill admitted that she had contacted Sewart to discuss the case and that she had searched the Internet for information about a shooting that involved defendant Knox.

In previous blog posts, we have considered the extent to which jurors should be restricted from Internet use during trial. The proliferation of iPads and smartphones raises difficult questions about how best to protect a defendant’s right to a fair trial while minimizing the burdens of jury service. But some cases are beyond the pale.

Fraill’s conduct seems indefensible for several reasons. First, Fraill understood the judge’s restrictions on case-related communications, and she took an oath promising not to research any aspect of the case on her own. Moreover, the chat log makes clear that she understood the potential consequences of juror misconduct. Indeed, Fraill knew that, if discovered, her conduct could result in a mistrial and that she could be punished for it. Nonetheless, Fraill blatantly disregarded the judge’s instructions.

If Fraill’s conduct were not bad enough on its own, other details seem to make it worse. The 10-week trial against Sewart and her codefendants was the third of four attempts by the prosecution to try the case. By the time Fraill was placed on the third jury, the case had already imposed considerable costs on Britain’s taxpayers and court system. Ultimately, the case involved 10,000 pages of evidence, 500 witnesses, 14 lawyers, and five juries over 160 days in court. More costs will be imposed as defendants, like Knox, appeal their convictions based on Fraill’s Facebook posts.

Given the context, Fraill’s eight-month sentence does not seem patently outrageous. Fraill’s extraordinary misconduct left the court little choice but to make an example of her.

Jul 19

DOJ Official Seeks to Clear Her Name After Contempt Charge

A recent filing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia uncovered a sidelight to the story of the botched prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

In April 2009, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan set aside the verdict in the criminal case against Stevens and dismissed the case on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. He commenced criminal contempt proceedings against six U.S. Department of Justice attorneys who were involved in the case, finding that they had failed to turn over exculpatory material to the defense.

That investigation, which is being conducted by attorney Henry Schuelke on a court appointment, continues.

However, on July 8, another attorney who was not named by Judge Sullivan for criminal contempt filed an interesting motion in the court. This was Patty Merkamp Stemler, chief of the Appellate Section of DOJ’s Criminal Division. A couple of months before the probe of the six attorneys began, Sullivan held Stemler in civil contempt for failure to produce 30 documents during post-trial proceedings in the Stevens case.

However, Stemler asserts, and no one has disputed, that she wasn’t involved in the failure to produce the documents.

Stemler, represented by former Solicitor General Seth Waxman, now a partner at Wilmer Cutler & Pickering Hale & Dorr, simply moved for a ruling on her previous uncontested motion to vacate her contempt. Nothing has happened, Waxman wrote, for more than a year. And since the contempt is still in effect, Stemler is not allowed to sign her name to a brief or appear in court, “hampering the government’s advocacy in the most important criminal appellate cases.”

It’s not clear why Sullivan hasn’t ruled on Stemler’s motion. Perhaps the new motion will make it clear. Meanwhile, a well-known and highly regarded DOJ attorney remains in limbo. If there’s no evidence against Stemler, it’s improper for Sullivan to hold her feet to the fire in this manner.

This motion was discussed in an in-depth story on the Main Justice site.

Connect with Us Share

About Ifrah Law

Crime in the Suites is authored by the Ifrah Law Firm, a Washington DC-based law firm specializing in the defense of government investigations and litigation. Our client base spans many regulated industries, particularly e-business, e-commerce, government contracts, gaming and healthcare.

Ifrah Law focuses on federal criminal defense, government contract defense and procurement, health care, and financial services litigation and fraud defense. Further, the firm's E-Commerce attorneys and internet marketing attorneys are leaders in internet advertising, data privacy, online fraud and abuse law, iGaming law.

The commentary and cases included in this blog are contributed by founding partner Jeff Ifrah, partners Michelle Cohen and George Calhoun, counsels Jeff Hamlin and Drew Barnholtz, and associates Rachel Hirsch, Nicole Kardell, Steven Eichorn, David Yellin, and Jessica Feil. These posts are edited by Jeff Ifrah. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

Visit the Ifrah Law Firm website