By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007
An FBI agent shooting the breeze with jurors during a break from their deliberations in a bank robbery trial made a seemingly innocent joke -- and it led to a mistrial yesterday in federal court.
The agent, the prosecution's lead investigator in the case, and two jurors were leaving the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington at the same time Thursday evening when the agent was overheard asking when they might reach a verdict. He jokingly said that they might want to stretch out their deliberations so he could get another day off from work, the forewoman told the judge.
The agent's chitchat broke a rule that prohibits witnesses and attorneys in court cases from having contact with jurors, especially during deliberations.
When U.S. District Judge James Robertson found out yesterday what FBI agent Jeffrey H. Johannes had said, as relayed in a note from the jury forewoman, he was none too pleased.
"The first person I want to talk to is agent Johannes," he told prosecutors. "Bring him in here."
The judge spent an hour interviewing Johannes and the forewoman and talking with prosecutors and defense attorneys, who agreed that the agent should have steered clear of the jurors.
Johannes told the judge that he was talking to a colleague while he and the jurors were leaving court. He said he might have joked about getting a day off but didn't intend to direct his comments toward the jurors.
"If I did, sir, I might have said it to my fellow agent," Johannes said.
Robertson concluded that Johannes probably considered his remark benign, but the judge expressed concern that it could have compromised the deliberations and the defendant's right to a fair trial.
Kevin L. Stoddard was facing charges of coercing a teller into handing him $14,000 at an M&T Bank branch on Georgia Avenue NW in May. Robertson selected a jury to hear Stoddard's case Tuesday. Evidence was presented Wednesday, and jurors began deliberating Thursday.
But after the forewoman's revelation, the judge ordered that Stoddard get a new trial with a new jury.
The forewoman wrote that she had noticed two fellow jurors talking to Johannes as she left the courthouse. When she got closer, she said, she overheard the agent ask them when they might have a verdict and jokingly suggest "stretching [deliberation] until Monday for an extra day off of work."
"As the appearance of impropriety is often as damaging as impropriety itself, I felt compelled to report this questionable conduct," the unidentified forewoman wrote.
Robertson later brought the jurors into the courtroom to explain what had happened. He told them he didn't blame them but stressed that jury decisions cannot appear to be improperly influenced.
"I can't emphasize to you enough how delicate this whole business is," Robertson said. "Believe it or not, that tiny little conversation is enough to trigger a mistrial decision."
Federal prosecutors Julieanne Himelstein and David P. Saybolt tried to convince the judge that it was premature to declare a mistrial without knowing whether the jurors were affected by the incident. Saybolt said that bank employee accounts of the robbery would sound "a little flat" in a second trial.
Stoddard's attorney, federal public defender Shawn F. Moore, said that would not be Stoddard's fault.
"Agent Johannes has been in the FBI for four years," Moore said. "He had no business talking to jurors. This is the fault of someone who should have known better."
FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman declined to comment.