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Misconduct inquiry didn't stop Buju Banton juror from serving in another trial

Misconduct by a juror was charged in Buju Banton’s federal trial.
Published Jul. 27, 2015

TAMPA — Two years ago, a federal judge concluded that a juror had independently researched the law amid the cocaine conspiracy trial of a reggae star, disobeying the judge's orders.

The juror denied the conduct. But U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. appointed a special prosecutor to put Terri Monique Wright of New Tampa on trial for federal criminal contempt of court, a rarity even in an era of Internet-compromised juries.

Her trial is Aug. 7.

What has she been up to in the meantime? Jury duty.

Wright, 47, whose alleged misconduct in the 2011 trial of Buju Banton triggered dismissal of a gun count, landed on another jury in an auto negligence lawsuit in state court in October, according to a lawyer and records reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.

No one appears to have noticed that the foreperson was the target of a federal juror misconduct inquiry.

"Talk about nerve," said the plaintiff's attorney, Stephen R. Williams, when told of the contempt case. "Holy smoke. With this hanging over her head, she gets on another jury?"

Williams filed the case in Hills­borough Circuit Court on behalf of a Miata driver who claimed further trauma to an already injured neck after getting rear-ended by a BMW.

He said he tried to have Wright excused because she works for an insurance company. Ultimately, his client got no money.

"I couldn't get rid of her for anything," he said of Wright. "She just said all the right things — 'I can be fair. What I do doesn't have anything to do with claims. I'm your person.' The judge wouldn't excuse her."

Other jurors reached by the Times recalled nothing out of the ordinary about Wright's participation. She was selected to be foreperson, as in Banton's case. One juror said it was because she sat at the end of the table in the deliberation room.

Neither Williams nor opposing counsel Charles E. McKeon recalls any mention by Wright of the federal matter. Neither recalls hearing that she had served on at least seven juries, as she once told a journalist writing about Grammy-winning Banton.

"I would have wanted to know," Williams said.

• • •

Web-surfing jurors are a major nuisance for judges across the nation. Despite prohibitions, jurors browse, post and tweet their way to trouble. Last spring, a Pinellas County juror's research scuttled the second murder trial of Ronnie Betts at an estimated public cost of $70,000. Betts is accused of killing a St. Petersburg mother of two.

"It's a very serious problem in a criminal case when a juror does his or her own research," Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons said, "because it can totally impact the verdict, and it brings into the jury room evidence that had not come before the jury in open court."

In the Betts case, juror Robert Aronovitz read on the Internet that a previous jury was unable to agree on a verdict. He shared that fact with fellow jurors. He's now serving 200 hours of community service, dishing out meals at a homeless shelter.

"I made a horrible mistake," he said last week.

Wright's alleged research involved the Pinkerton rule, a legal doctrine that potentially allowed jurors to hold Banton liable for possession of a gun carried by a co-conspirator. The panel had already learned about the rule during jury instructions.

Former Miami New Times journalist Chris Sweeney interviewed Wright more than a year after Banton's criminal trial and wrote that she told him she researched the Pinkerton rule to prepare for deliberations.

She described herself as passionate about jury service, an attribute attorneys sometimes view as a red flag.

The published account gave Banton's defense new energy and stirred hope among fans of the Jamaican musician — whose real name is Mark Myrie — that he might win a new trial. He's in prison until 2019.

His case had already been messy, with one hung jury before Wright got involved. Her jury, the second, found Banton guilty of helping to set up a cocaine buy and also convicted him of the gun count, which stood to add five years to his 10-year term.

Moody threw out the gun verdict, only to be reversed on appeal. Then the article about Wright led to an inquiry. Moody threw out the gun verdict again, this time blaming the juror.

He wrote that the gun case was a close call, making any outside research "extremely dangerous."

Wright had testified that her research took place after Banton's trial, not during it. His attorneys played portions of her recorded interview with the journalist, in which she did not draw such a distinction.

A computer expert who examined Wright's hard drive found no evidence to support either claim. He reported that the computer hadn't been turned on during the trial or during the four months that followed, leading the judge to conclude Wright surrendered the wrong hard drive.

"I can certainly see why Ms. Wright was selected as a juror in this case," the judge said in June 2013, as he prepared to initiate a contempt case against her.

"I can see why she was selected six times, seven times before as a juror. She has a nice appearance. She comes across as someone who will pay attention and be diligent. She's exactly the kind of person you want as a juror."

• • •

Wright's publicly paid attorney, Lori Palmieri, declined to comment on the case.

At a May hearing, she questioned whether Moody should preside over the trial, given that he already determined during the Banton hearing that Wright committed juror misconduct.

Moody noted it's how such cases are handled, and Palmieri agreed. He invited her to show he was wrong about the misconduct. He said he's open to that. And he said that if special prosecutor Erik Matheney can't prove that Wright did her research during deliberations, she's not guilty.

"I'm certainly not excited about holding a juror in contempt," Moody said.

Wright, a Florida resident for at least 16 years, has no state criminal record.

The judge has said in court that any sentence imposed will be "less than six months."

That call means he alone will decide the case, rather than turn it over to citizens.

In other words, Wright won't be getting a jury trial.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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