A convicted burglar was granted a new trial Thursday after a judge ruled the jury heard prejudicial information during their deliberations.
Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg ruled defendant Hoyt Galvan was denied his right to a fair trial when the jury foreperson assured the jurors they had made the right decision after the verdict was reached.
Testimony during a recent hearing showed the foreperson informed the jurors that he knew one of the central witnesses who testified at trial and he relayed negative comments either about the witness or the “goings-on” in the neighborhood. Testimony differed as to what exactly was said.
“That information was outside the evidence, it was prejudicial, it was related in a way that directly related it to the decision before the jury,” Pallenberg said. “And from an objective standpoint, if a juror was wavering at that point, being told that ‘I know something that wasn’t in the evidence about one of the witnesses that indicates that you reached the correct decision’ could well have influenced a juror.”
The allegations spurred evidentiary hearings after the June trial at the request of Galvan’s attorney Thomas Collins. It also put the court in an unusual situation as it was asked to examine what happened behind closed doors during jury deliberations, which is normally a “black box” the court isn’t allowed to inquire into, Pallenberg noted.
Galvan, 56, was accused of stealing and damaging tens of thousands of dollars worth of items from a single-wide trailer at the Glacier View Mobile Home Park in 2011. The trailer is owned by Eastside Carpet Company in Anchorage.
Following a five-day trial, the jury convicted Galvan on all three felony counts against him: burglary, theft and criminal mischief. He had not been sentenced yet and is still in custody at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. He is facing up to 20 years in prison.
The conversation in question came to light at the end of the trial as one of the jurors began crying in court as the verdict was read. That juror sent a letter to Galvan’s attorney the next day, alleging juror misconduct against the foresperson.
As the defense moved for a new trial, the credibility of the crying juror became central to the arguments and the state tried to show she was biased and had motivation to cause either a mistrial or a new trial.
Four of the jurors testified during a court hearing last month, in which they described the crying juror as engaging in “attention seeking behavior” during deliberations, and that she announced to the group she was going to play ‘Devil’s Advocate.’ Their testimony indicated all the deliberations focused around convincing her of Galvan’s guilt, while the rest were in agreement. The foreperson testified that the crying juror would not consider the facts of the case because she was concerned Galvan would be incarcerated. (Jurors are not supposed to consider possible penalties of an offense.)
Assistant District Attorney Kemp also told the judge that the crying juror is presently involved with civil legal matters that affected her ability to render a guilty verdict, for whatever reason, and that the juror has since filed a pleading for a judicial review of the case.
The crying juror fought back against the bias allegations during Thursday’s hearing, and told the judge that she does not know Galvan and had no interest in the case except to ensure he had a fair trial.
“It’s my civic duty to speak up and make sure that the court system gives everyone a fair shake,” The crying juror said in an interview after the hearing, adding that she feels upset because she feels her character has been “wrongfully impugned.” “I’m not an advocate for anybody. I just want the truth to come out.”
Pallenberg, however, agreed with the state that was not completely credible since she has “taken up an agenda” and has become an advocate in the case. Nevertheless, it was clear there was discussion about one of the witnesses that was in a negative light, Pallenberg said. Pallenberg found that amounted to the jury hearing “extraneous prejudicial information” and it affected the way a reasonable juror would think about the case.
The foreperson told the jury he knew witness William Byron Benedict, who testified during the trial that he helped Galvan transport a fridge from one trailer to another in the middle of the night. Byron was the only witness who directly tied Galvan to the crime in the time frame that it’s alleged, Pallenberg said, noting the rest of the case was circumstantial.
It turns out, however, that the foreperson did alert the court to the fact that he knew Benedict. He indicated on his jury questionnaire that he might know someone in the case, but the attorneys did not ask a follow-up question about it during the pretrial “voir dire” process. Voir dire weeds out jurors for potential bias.
There was also an error on the questionnaire, which listed Benedict as “William Benedict.” But Benedict goes by his first name, Byron.
After hearing opening statements, wherein he likely heard Benedict being referred to as Byron, the foreperson asked to speak to the court, and he then informed the parties that he is Facebook friends with Benedict and that he used to attend school with him since junior high. He was allowed to remain on the jury.
Pallenberg told the attorneys that he doesn’t mean to criticize them, but at that point, the foreperson should have been questioned further about his relationship with Benedict.
“I’m probably just being curmudgeonly but I think it’s unfortunate that we’re in this place,” Pallenberg said.
Pallenberg also noted that there seems to be a general trend in the voir dire process of attorneys moving away from questions inquiring of a potential juror’s knowledge of a case and witnesses, and instead previewing their opening statements and closing arguments.
“I think this is virtually every lawyer that I see,” Pallenberg said.
Testimony showed that the conversation amongst the jurors took place during the 24-minute waiting period after the verdict form was signed at 8:25 a.m. and before it was read aloud to the court at 8:48 a.m.
Pallenberg said deliberations at that point are still continuing, even though the form is signed. The jury still holds the right to change their minds and tell the judge they need more time to deliberate.
“Nothing to say they can’t do that,” Pallenberg said. “They have an absolute right to do that. Those deliberations are still continuing at that point.”
A new trial was scheduled for begin on April 2.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.