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Juror in Charlottesville death case bites back

Peter Vieth//October 20, 2011

Juror in Charlottesville death case bites back

Peter Vieth//October 20, 2011

A letter from a juror who took part in a record-breaking verdict offers a rare look inside the jury deliberation process and a harsh critique for many involved in the trial, including the judge.

Both the plaintiff’s and defendants’ lawyers get knocked for their courtroom style, and the judge is taken to task for his assumptions about how the jury determined to award a total of $10.577 million to family members of a woman killed in a collision with a concrete truck.

The Charlottesville case of Lester v. Allied Concrete Co. already has produced unusual legal drama, bringing the apparent end of a legal career for lawyer Matthew P. Murray, still-undetermined sanctions against Murray and his former law firm, and criticism from Judge Edward L. Hogshire for lawyers on both sides of the courtroom as he cut the verdict by more than $4 million.

Hogshire found the jury must have been influenced by passion or prejudice.

In an undated letter received last month by Hogshire, juror Margaret E. Gardiner questioned Hogshire’s analysis of the jury’s decision.

The jury had determined to give $6,227,000 to the husband of the deceased accident victim. Hogshire found that amount “grossly disproportionate” to the $1 million each for the woman’s parents.

Hogshire found the amount of the verdict suggested it was “motivated by bias, sympathy, passion or prejudice rather than by a fair and objection consideration of the evidence.”

As a member of the jury, Gardiner was stung by the judge’s language. “I am disappointed that you have chosen to include in the public record a characterization of our decision as unreasonable, unfair, and motivated by bias, sympathy, passion, prejudice or anger,” she wrote.

Gardiner goes on to explain how the jury weighed various factors in the trial, noting the judge interpreted the same elements differently.

‘[I]t appears that you have substituted your own interpretation of what was relevant at trial for ours…,” Gardiner wrote. “These seem to be honest disagreements over legal matters, not evidence of our bias as a jury.”

“It saddens me to see [the jury’s] efforts criticized in the public record based [on] incorrect assumptions about our motivations,” Gardiner wrote.

Gardiner opens a window to the jury’s analysis of the damages, explaining the jury spent most of its time deciding on dollar amounts for the victim’s family members.

“We came to a consensus that [the husband’s] loss of his choice of a life partner and mother of their potential children was greater than the loss of one of [the parents’] children,” Gardiner wrote.

Gardiner said the jury considered as irrelevant evidence such as Facebook photos of the husband’s social activities, his history of college drinking and use of prescription drugs, his traveling and socializing after the accident, and his drinking and drug use after the accident. Also deemed irrelevant was church attendance, home schooling, the appearance of the victim, crying family members, and the social background of the defendant truck driver.

Evidence the jury considered relevant, Gardiner said, was the truck driver’s conviction and admission of guilt in traffic court, psychiatric diagnoses of the husband’s post-traumatic stress disorder, evidence of the victim’s future lost wages, medical and funeral bills, and jurors’ own common sense about what it means to lose a grown daughter or spouse.

Gardiner expressly rejected any suggestions that the jury was swayed by Murray’s courtroom dramatics. “To the extent we were prejudiced by Mr. Murray’s emotional outbursts, references to God, or quotations of pop song lyrics, we were prejudiced AGAINST the plaintiff’s attorney whose antics were clearly over-the-top (and we ALL felt that way!),” Gardiner wrote.

The defense, represented at trial by Washington lawyer David M. Tafuri, does not escape the juror’s harsh judgment. “To the extent I was angry at defense counsel, it was for his professional incompetence and inability to phrase a question, not his treatment of witnesses,” Gardiner wrote.

Hogshire distributed Gardiner’s letter to counsel involved in the case and also penned a reply.

“Rest assured your comments have been carefully considered,” the judge wrote.

He explained there is no legal basis to require jurors to explain their decisions, and that judges must review verdicts in light of the evidence and the overall circumstances without “intruding into the thought processes of the jury.”

“The juror who wrote Judge Hogshire was very astute and expressed beautifully the frustration faced in most cases by jurors,” commented retired Campbell County Circuit Judge J. Samuel Johnston Jr.

While on the bench, Johnston took a survey of approximately 2,500 jurors over 20 years and discussed their perceptions of the trial process at conferences and seminars.

Johnston said Gardiner’s letter demonstrates that jurors take their service seriously and want to do the “right” thing. “The jury instructions are their bible, but the bible is sometimes arcane and not fully understandable,” Johnston said.

Johnston said he smiled when he read the critique of the lawyer’s histrionics. “The thoughts and observations of jurors is a wonderful source for lawyers to learn and focus on the things that are deemed important and are most telling at trial. The letter from the juror is a font of useful information and lawyers would be wise to heed its message,” Johnston said.

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