Juror Looks Up Word and Finds Trouble
Saturday, April 29, 2006
The juror told the judge yesterday that he was sitting at home with his 9-year-old son when he decided to look up a word -- a word that, depending on how it was interpreted, could mean life or death for Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
Leafing through his son's dictionary, the juror found the definition of "aggravating": to intensify or to strengthen, to increase. Yesterday, he returned to the jury room in Moussaoui's death penalty trial and started to share his findings when another juror stopped him. "Oh, that could be research," the other juror said.
As it turned out, the juror's extracurricular research Thursday night had been forbidden by the judge. When jurors on Tuesday asked whether they could have a dictionary, she told them they were not allowed to do any independent investigating at home.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema questioned the juror yesterday and concluded that there was "no intentional or material" violation of her order. She admonished the entire jury to follow her instructions and consider only evidence heard in court, then allowed them to resume deliberations.
Jurors did not reach a verdict yesterday and went home after completing their third full day of deliberating. They will resume Monday to consider the fate -- life in prison or death -- of the only person convicted in the United States on charges stemming from the 2001 terrorist attacks. Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty last year in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to conspiring with al-Qaeda.
The errant juror, known only as Juror No. 402, told Brinkema at a hearing that he had thought her instructions only meant that they couldn't do research on the Internet. "I was sitting with my 9-year-old. He had a dictionary there," he said, according to a transcript. "I didn't even think about it. I looked it up to see if it confirmed what I thought it was."
When he told other jurors that he had looked up "aggravating," someone said, "Oh, that could be research," the juror said. He said he never discussed with other jurors what he saw in the dictionary and quickly sent a note to Brinkema alerting her to the problem.
The juror's nighttime research touched on the key issue confronting the panel, which is weighing the aggravating factors that prosecutors say justify a death sentence for Moussaoui against mitigating factors that defense attorneys argue mean his life should be spared. Among the aggravating factors to be determined is whether Moussaoui was responsible for the nearly 3,000 deaths on Sept. 11. Mitigating factors include whether sentencing him to death would make him a martyr.
As Brinkema explained again yesterday to the 12-member panel, deliberations could be skewed if one juror knows more than the rest. "What that would do is change your role as jurors," she said. "You would then become advocates for one side or the other."
Legal experts were not surprised that Brinkema allowed the juror to remain, especially because jurors would have had to restart deliberations if an alternate had been called in. The Moussaoui case has stretched over more than four years and has been delayed numerous times.
"Judges will try, if at all possible, to continue deliberations," said Thomas Munsterman, an expert on juries at the Center for Jury Studies in Arlington, part of the National Center for State Courts. He added that one juror looking up the word "does not disqualify him from sitting as a juror" if his research did not infect deliberations.
With more than 80,000 jury trials in the United States each year and a million sworn jurors, it is rare for them to violate a judge's instructions, Munsterman said. But he said the Internet and the communications revolution have created new temptations.
In one recent example, Munsterman said, a Texas juror used the Internet to look up a defendant's criminal record, which was inadmissible. Another juror used his cellphone from the jury room to call his lawyer and ask for the definition of reasonable doubt.
After her lecture yesterday, Brinkema thanked the Moussaoui juror for admitting his mistake and said the entire jury had been conscientious in "policing my instructions."
As for the definition of aggravating, Brinkema told jurors that it "essentially means to make something worse." The next time they had a question, she added, "please don't hesitate to send me notes."