DADE CITY — His chatter halted a murder trial before it could even get started. It cost the taxpayers more than $12,000 to bring in witnesses, only to have them sent home. The families of two Wesley Chapel teenagers, killed execution style six years ago, wouldn't get closure. Tyree Jenkins, facing death if convicted of the crime, wouldn't get to learn his fate.
In March, the utterances of Juror No. 357 forced Circuit Judge Susan Gardner to dismiss the entire jury pool out of concern that the overheard remarks made a fair trial impossible.
On Thursday, she hauled Robert Mitchell, 69, into her courtroom. The reason: for him to tell why he shouldn't be punished for blabbing details about the defendant's previous murder conviction, which attorneys on both sides had already agreed not to bring up during the trial.
Gardner said she couldn't hold the Hudson retiree in contempt because it was unclear whether his remarks were made after prospective jurors had been instructed not to discuss cases.
"I have to find that your conduct was willful," she said. "I'm not able to prove that."
Instead she issued a polite warning.
"I would hope that if you were called to jury service again, perhaps you could spread the word never to talk about any cases within the jury pool room or within the hearing of any other juror."
Mitchell's attorney, Larry Hersch, said his client was "flabbergasted" when he received a summons earlier this month.
"He will never, ever talk to anybody about this ever, ever again," he said.
The incident was not the only example of jurors' antics causing problems for the court system. Those involved in the judicial process say such events are becoming more common, especially as society becomes tethered to technology.
"Jurors are always going to do things we tell them not to," lamented Circuit Judge Michael Andrews, who had to call a mistrial in a different case after a juror admitted during deliberations that she had "checked out everything online." The trial lasted only two days, but it cost the taxpayers several thousand dollars. Andrews said he later ran into a juror who was on that panel.
"He was angry," he said. "He thought I should have put her in jail for that. Looking back, I probably should have at least made her pay a fine."
Andrews said jurors need to understand that judges aren't trying to keep secrets when they tell them to decide based solely on what they learn in court.
"If it's not permissible it's for a good reason," he said. "Either somebody's rights have been violated or the law says so."
In Hillsborough, jurors' use of social media formed the basis for Kendrick Morris' request for a new trial. He was convicted in 2010 of raping a teenage girl making a book drop at the Bloomingdale library. During the trial, a juror posted that testimony was "boring" and another juror posted an online comment claiming the foreman had outside information on the case.
In Sarasota County, a man got kicked off a civil court jury last year after "friending" one of the defendants on Facebook.
Jurors are told not to do independent research or comment on the case in person or electronically several times during trials. In 2010, the Florida Supreme Court issued specific instructions to be read to jurors about the use of email, blogs and social media.
In west Pasco, bailiffs take up smart phones, lap tops, tablets and any other devices each morning when a jury reports to court.
"It's an issue," said Thane Covert, acting chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit. "We try to let them know (the rules) at first contact. It doesn't always work."
Sometimes the violators are surprising. For example, when witness lists are read to make sure no jurors know anyone personally, "someone in law enforcement still stands up and says, 'I know him. I used to watch over him in jail,' " Covert said. "Not everyone needs to know that."
Covert said if there's any question, jurors should always send a note to the bailiff and ask for a private meeting with the judge and attorneys.
Court employees aren't the only ones who are affected by these outbursts, said Brian Gonzalez, a Tampa defense attorney who represented Jenkins in the first murder trial. Jenkins' new trial is scheduled for this fall.
Postponing cases, especially those that already are several years old, takes an emotional toll on victims' and defendants' families and can affect outcomes.
"Witnesses don't show up, or they change their story or they find another reason to think something other than they did previously," he said.
Sometimes, he said, an investigation can determine whether enough of the jury pool is salvageable. But in a death penalty case, judges don't want to take chances.
"That's a horrible reason for (a case) to come back," he said.
No-show jurors also receive warning
Victor Cruz overslept. Daniel Deveau had severe vertigo. Michael O'Brien didn't get his summons. Daniel Zutler didn't have a job.
They were among the 13 people who failed to show up for jury duty two consecutive times this year.
Circuit Judge Susan Gardner ordered them all to her Dade City courtroom on Thursday to explain.
"We missed you on March 5 and June 4," she told each one as they stood before her. "What happened?"
Excuses ranged from illness to being on vacation to having two mailboxes to being away at college.
"I can't tell you how embarrassed I was," said Barbara Backes, who was away from home when the notices arrived and said she has served on previous juries. "I'd be happy to sign up today."
Gardner could have held some in contempt for their absence. But instead she used her bench as a pulpit to preach the importance of not shirking jury duty.
"I could slap you with a fine," she told Cruz before cutting the 21-year-old a break. "But you can help me out in another way. Tell your friends if they get a jury summons don't blow it off. People's lives are hanging in the balance, and we just can't operate without jurors."
Gardner isn't the only judge holding jurors accountable these days. Andrews recently held his own meeting with AWOL jurors at the New Port Richey courthouse.
"People need to know that judges are not going to sit idly by and let the system be undermined," said Andrews. He read those jurors part of a newspaper story about two local servicemen who were killed in the line of duty. If they can make that sacrifice, he said, jurors can give up a few days to help decide a case.
Besides, Gardner told jurors Thursday, "It's not so bad. It's sometimes very informative. I have yet to have anyone die of boredom or otherwise."