Michelle Young

Jason Young trial judge orders SBI probe into possible juror misconduct

Posted March 6, 2012 2:30 p.m. EST
Updated March 6, 2012 10:39 p.m. EST

— The judge presiding over the murder trial of Jason Young has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into possible misconduct involving a juror who might have talked about the case during deliberations.

The panel of eight women and four men on Monday found Young, 37, guilty of first-degree murder in the beating death of his wife, Michelle Young, who was found dead in the couple's home in November 2006. He is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

It was Jason Young's second trial. His first ended in a mistrial in June after a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens met with prosecutors and defense attorneys about the misconduct allegation Tuesday morning after someone posted on WRAL News' Facebook page that a juror was reportedly communicating during deliberations with someone outside the case about the jury's progress.

"My hairdresser is friends with a jury member on the JY trial. They are now deadlocked at 9 Guilty 3 Not Guilty. It was 7 Not Guilty 5 Guilty!" according to one message posted around noon Monday.

In another post around 1 a.m., the same Facebook user wrote: "My hairdresser is friends with a woman on the jury. She was supposedly texting her telling her how the vote was going."

WRAL News reported the posts to Stephens upon finding them Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. Defense attorneys had also notified the judge about them.

"Although this social media conversation … is unsubstantiated hearsay and appears to lack any credible factual basis, it suggests that there is a question about the deliberative process of the jury," Stephens wrote in a letter to SBI Director Greg McLeod.

It's unclear how an SBI probe might, if at all, affect the outcome of the trial, and attorneys declined to comment Tuesday on the issue.

Legal experts say that juror misconduct would not necessarily warrant a mistrial.

"Was there substantial and irreparable prejudice brought to the defendant's case?" Brian Boyd, a professor at Campbell University's Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, said. "If Judge Stephens, in fact, found that, in his discretion, we're talking about a new trial."

Jurors said Tuesday that they do not believe there is any truth to the claim.

"Judge Stephens was very clear throughout the trial that we couldn’t talk to anybody, and we’re all pretty close," Melissa Axline, who was juror No. 3, said. "I just don’t see anybody doing that. I think it’s absolutely false."

Anthony Fuller, juror No. 1, said cellphones were off and put away during deliberations and that everyone was trying to come to a unanimous decision with integrity.

Prior to giving jurors the case last week, Stephens ordered them to turn off their cellphones and not to communicate with anyone during deliberations.

Throughout the lengthy trial, he reminded them daily not to discuss the case with anyone and to avoid social networking sites and news coverage of the case so as to avoid any perception of bias and to help maintain the integrity of the justice system.

Early on in the trial, during jury selection, Stephens had to dismiss two jurors for talking about the case.

One man, who could be charged with contempt, reportedly was overheard discussing it at a restaurant. Another man was dismissed for posting comments about serving on the jury on an Internet message board.

Boyd says technology, social media and increased news access are posing more challenges in court cases. Jurors have easier access to research cases, know more about them before they go to trial, and there is more of a temptation to share on social networking sites.

"Now in this digital age, where all of us put our very thoughts and very impressions out there in the world, it's going to have a tremendous impact," he said.

Courts vary on their policies regarding jurors, Boyd says. Some have total prohibitions on cellphones and mobile devices.

In Florida, for example, he said, courts can sequester jurors, which is what happened in the Casey Anthony trial, so that they have no outside influences.

"It's very rare in North Carolina that we sequester jurors," local defense attorney Karl Knudsen said. "Maybe we might have to start thinking about that."