Juror Admits Sabotaging Murder Trial

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006

A juror pleaded guilty yesterday to rigging the murder trial of a childhood friend in one of the most brazen acts of jury tampering ever exposed in D.C. Superior Court.

Charged with contempt, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, Jovanda Blackson, 27, admitted that she lied her way onto the jury in Lamiek Fortson's case last year and that she conspired with Fortson and his wife to derail the prosecution.

Once on the jury, Blackson refused to deliberate, insisting that she would never vote to convict Fortson and his co-defendant in a 2002 stomping death in Northeast Washington. The jury deadlocked last May, and a mistrial was declared.

This year, the men were tried again and convicted. Yesterday, Fortson, 28, already serving 60 years for the murder, pleaded guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice.

The plot nearly went undetected. A tip from a jailhouse informant kept it from staying a secret. An investigation uncovered not only the jury-rigging scheme but also an alleged plot to kill a key witness before the retrial.

Along with Blackson and Fortson, Fortson's wife, Erica Williams, was accused of trying to subvert the prosecution's case. She pleaded guilty to an obstruction charge stemming from the jury tampering and ultimately testified against her husband in the retrial of the murder case. Fortson and a fellow D.C. jail inmate, Kevin Magnum, still face prosecution for allegedly conspiring to kill the witness.

Prosecutors said Fortson and co-defendant Harry Ellis beat and kicked Gerald Lee Whitfield, 27, to death June 28, 2002, in an alley in the 1600 block of Holbrook Street NE. Touched off by a dice game, the attack dragged on for as long as a half-hour and left Whitfield's face unrecognizable even to his mother.

When Ellis and Fortson were first tried, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann M. Carroll, appeared to have a strong case. But unbeknown to her, the odds changed when Blackson walked into the courtroom of Judge Erik P. Christian as a prospective juror.

Seeing Fortson at the defense table, Blackson realized that she had gone to junior high school with him and his wife. With a furtive wink, Blackson let Fortson know that she was going to try to help him, prosecutors alleged.

She didn't tell the judge that she knew Fortson or that two of her relatives had been jailed for murder. Either disclosure would have disqualified her from the jury.

The surreptitious pact was sealed in a courthouse restroom, where Blackson and Williams talked during a break in the jury selection, prosecutors said.

Blackson gave her juror number to Williams in an effort to ensure that she got on the jury. Williams testified that she passed Blackson's juror number to Fortson's attorney, Douglas Evans.

Evans has denied any wrongdoing, and no criminal charges have been filed against him.

It was by all accounts a coincidence that Blackson was on jury duty that day. But what followed was not, she conceded yesterday in court.

Wearing a red knit kufi and a red hooded sweat shirt, she listened as Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Anderson explained how the plot unfolded. Blackson's mother and daughter sat among the spectators. Blackson's attorney, Nikki Lotze, stood at her side.

"Guilty," she told the judge when asked how she wanted to plead.

The charges carry a maximum penalty of life in prison, but because she has no criminal record, Blackson is likely to receive a prison term of several years when she is sentenced July 14.

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