Wednesday, August 15, 2018
News Roundup

Why did a jury fail to reach a verdict in the trial of the Valrico mother who buried guns?

TAMPA — When a Tampa mother went on trial this week, accused of hiding guns after her teenage son shot another boy in a drug deal, the one expectation was that a jury would decide her fate.

Yet after less than three hours of deliberations, the panel of four women and two men declared themselves hopelessly deadlocked. Even after Circuit Judge Nick Nazaretian gave them a secondary set of instructions and sent them back in, the jurors didn't budge.

"After extensive deliberation, fully understanding that we are not on a time limit, we are not able to come to a unanimous verdict," they wrote in a note to the judge. "All evidence has been discussed and evaluated to its fullest extent and each of us has not wavered on (the) vote."

A mistrial was declared. The State Attorney's Office is in the process of determining whether it will retry the case.

Experienced trial observers can only guess at what might have happened to make the panel give up so quickly.

"It could have been you had a ringer," said Senior Judge J. Rogers Padgett, who spent more than 30 years on the bench in Hillsborough County. "One juror told the rest of them, 'I don't care what the rest of you say.' "

The jury forewoman, Althea Vaccaro, declined to detail the deliberations, but she did give the Tampa Bay Times some insight into the panel's discussions.

"I think the parent aspect might have played a role in this,'' she said.

The six jurors have a total of nine children. A few had kids close in age to Quinn's son, Cody, who was 16 when he was accused of fatally shooting Jayquon Johnson, a Brandon High School basketball player, in a botched drug deal.

"It seemed that the nature of what she did might have weighed on people," Vaccaro said. She declined to elaborate.

The jury never heard about the drug deal. But they did hear that detectives couldn't refute the boy's claim of self-defense. And they knew all about Heidi Quinn's handling of the weapons — one of which belonged to her son, the other to Johnson.

Witnesses and investigators testified that the mother hid the guns in a trash can full of dirt immediately after the shooting.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys offered two contrasting explanations for her actions in arguments to the jury.

The state said she moved the weapons to protect her son from legal consequences. The defense said she did it to protect her son from being hurt by the unsecured guns.

The jury began deliberating at 3:11 p.m. Tuesday. A little more than 30 minutes later, they asked their first question.

"Need to understand the word 'purpose' and its scope," Vaccaro wrote.

She was referring to the wording of the state law on tampering with evidence. It says that no person knowing that a criminal proceeding or investigation is imminent "shall alter, destroy, conceal, or remove" any item "with the purpose to impair its verity or availability in such proceeding or investigation."

Inside the jury room, Vaccaro said, they knew they were stuck.

"No matter how many times we went through and read the charge, as a group we couldn't come together," she said. "We were all very clear on where we each stood. We could not get everybody on the same page."

Vaccaro declined to say whether the panel was leaning one way or another. She said she wanted to respect the privacy of her fellow jurors.

"Everyone who had an opinion was forceful, but they were respectful of everyone else," she said. "I don't want to say there was one or two. "

Defense attorney Jeff Marshall said the jury's question might mean they were focused on the issue of Quinn's intent. Both sides scoured case law for guidance.

Ultimately, Nazaretian decided to tell the jury they had received all the instructions they were going to get regarding the elements of the crime.

They returned to deliberations. At about the 90-minute mark, Vaccaro sent another note.

"We were unable to come to an agreement on verdict," it read.

It was then that Nazaretian suggested giving the jury an "Allen charge." This involves giving further instructions to prevent a hung jury.

Nazaretian advised the jury to return to deliberations, for each person to discuss their thoughts on the case. He said that jurors could disagree about facts, but not the law.

Deliberations continued for 20 more minutes. Then came the third note.

"We are still unable to reach a unanimous verdict."

Before they returned to the courtroom, the judge wondered aloud if his reading of the Allen charge had been premature. Typically, he said, that is "the last card played."

Assistant State Attorney Nicki Mohr noted that the jury had barely been out two hours. "It does not seem appropriate at this point to declare a mistrial," she said.

But Nazaretian said he didn't want to try to force the jury to return a verdict.

After advising them that there was no time limit to their deliberations, he told them to retire once more. They returned a short time later. No one was budging.

A mistrial was declared. They had deliberated for two hours and 37 minutes.

"The time was a little unusual," Padgett noted. "I never had one where the jury wasn't out for hours."

Vaccaro insists there were no rash decisions.

"We were not flippant," she said. "I don't want anyone to think we did not put the proper time into it. . . . I don't want this to be a he-said, she-said. The only thing I can say is there was nobody willing to change their mind."

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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