A federal judge is expanding his investigation into allegations of juror misconduct in the drug trial of reggae star Buju Banton.
U.S. District Judge James Moody today ordered U.S. marshals to seize computers belonging to jury forewoman Terri Wright so a defense expert can see whether Internet research was conducted during the trial.
The judge also plans to hold a second hearing on the issue and subpoena the remaining jurors.
The jury in the Banton case – as is common in all jury trials – was told to refrain from conducting outside research and to judge the case solely on evidence introduced in the courtroom and the legal instructions given by the judge.
Convictions have been overturned before because of jurors' Internet activity, but one expert who researches juror misconduct said he has never heard of a judge going as far as ordering the seizure of a juror's computer and subpoenaing an entire jury.
"That's pretty far out," said Bennett L. Gersham, a professor at Pace Law School in New York. "It reflects the gravity of the situation and the dangers at work here."
Gersham said that if the judge determines Wright violated his orders then lied about it under oath, she could face charges of contempt of court or even perjury.
Charles Rose, a professor at Stetson University School of Law, said everyone is used to having access to information at the tips of their fingers and they bring those expectations into the courtroom.
"While the judges will order what you call digital sequestration of the jury, those orders are routinely being violated," Rose said. "I think it's almost ubiquitous at this point."
Gersham agreed that it's likely common.
Consequently, he said, Moody's investigation may help curb future jurors from violating court directives by signaling the courts take the offense seriously.
"The potential for this type of behavior is enormous," Gersham said. "Maybe you need to do this to send a message to jurors to resist the temptation to do their own outside research."
Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for two drug offenses. The Grammy winner faces an additional five years on a related gun possession charge.
Wright told a reporter for a South Florida newspaper that she researched the case.
"I would get in the car, just write my notes down so I could remember, and I would come home and do the research," Wright said in response to a question about whether she did her research during or after the trial.
Wright and three other jurors were called to testify at a hearing before Moody last month, and Wright insisted her research had been conducted only after the case was over.
Wright testified she researched Banton's music and the federal Pinkerton rule, which involves liability among conspirators for the actions of other conspirators.
Two of the other jurors testified that they had not heard anything about fellow jurors doing research during the trial. But one said she recalled a white woman juror saying she had researched the Pinkerton law. Wright is black.
Before the Internet was widely available, Rose said, jury misconduct arose as an issue mostly in organized crime cases involving allegations of jury tampering.
"It is very uncommon and it is a distinctive occasion that a judge has more than probable cause to believe that this juror did something inappropriate that impacted on the verdict,"
Rose said, "It's only been with the advent of the Internet that we can tell when the jurors don't follow the judge's instructions on the law. Before we accepted the fiction they did."
The U.S. Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the case, declined comment on the latest developments.
One of Banton's attorneys, Imhotep Alkebu-lan, said what Judge Moody has ordered "is a very big deal. …I'm taking it as an indication that the court still has questions about Wright's credibility and whether there were other jurors who violated the court's admonition."
Banton's trial lawyer, David Oscar Markus said, "The jury was 10-2 for not guilty until one juror committed serious misconduct. I'm thankful that Judge Moody will make sure justice is served."
If Banton wins the motion, he could get what would be his third trial in the case. The first trial ended when jurors were unable to agree whether to convict the singer.
But it's possible the case could be resolved without another trial. During the telephone conference, Moody asked the lawyers if they had discussed the possibility of resolving the pending issues, according to the court's minutes of the conference.
Alkebu-Ian said plea negotiations are a possibility and that the defense lawyers would pursue "whatever is in Mr. Myrie's best interest."
He said the defense would be willing to discuss a guilty plea to a lesser charge that would allow the singer to be released from prison.