D.C. juror is charged after skipping day of murder trial
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Ladies and gentlemen of the District, when you respond to a jury summons and are actually picked for a jury, you may want to show up every day of the trial. Or you could go to jail.
That's what Louis F. Alexander of Northwest Washington discovered Friday when he stood before D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. on contempt charges for failing to appear at a murder trial in January. He faced up to six months in jail.
It seems Alexander, 42, made the judge go looking for him. Dixon's office repeatedly left messages asking where he was, but Alexander didn't appear for the second day of testimony in a first-degree murder trial.
According to court filings, Alexander was sworn in Jan. 25 as a juror to hear the double-defendant case, U.S. v. Steven Harrison and U.S. v. Denardo Hopkins in the 2007 robbery and shooting death of Michol Brown. After Alexander's first day, court officers ordered the jurors to return by 9:30 a.m. the next.
But on the second day of testimony, according to charging documents, Alexander called Dixon's chambers and left a voice mail message saying that he had an emergency meeting at the hotel where he works as a manager. Alexander left his cellphone number where court officials could reach him. Dixon's office called the missing juror several times that day but got no answer. Court officials then called Alexander's boss, who told officials that he assumed Alexander was headed back to court. He never arrived.
Alexander returned to court the next day. By then, however, Dixon had charged him with contempt and ordered him out of the courtroom until his initial hearing. Superior Court takes jury duty seriously. In 2008, the court issued nearly 100 bench warrants to District residents who failed to show up after receiving jury summonses.
Avoiding a delay
So to avoid delaying the trial, the defense attorneys, prosecutor and Dixon agreed to proceed with only 13 jurors. Judges overseeing criminal trials usually pick 14 jurors: 12 to deliberate and two alternates to serve as standby in case an emergency -- usually a verifiable health-related one -- causes a juror or two to miss part of the trial or deliberations.
Lawyers thought the complicated trial would be over by mid-February. That time frame was important because one of the jurors had told court officials of a scheduled out-of-town appointment in late February. But because of the February snowstorms, court was closed for several days, causing the trial to last nearly two months.
By the time the jurors started deliberating, there were only 11. The juror with the appointment was out of the country on business, and another was ill and had been hospitalized. Alexander's flight left trial participants worried that after weeks of emotional testimony, the case could end in a mistrial. Dixon instead ordered the jurors excused from deliberations until Wednesday, when the out-of-town juror is expected back.
In court Friday, Alexander, at times with his voice cracking, told Dixon what he said was the real reason he did not return to court: He had an emotional breakdown. He also testified that he didn't make the work meeting because he was so distraught.
Alexander is the son of D.C. Superior Court Judge Harry T. Alexander, who was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and was one of the court's first African American judges before his retirement in the late 1970s. Alexander helps care for his elderly father, who is recovering from a series of strokes. The former judge had been discharged from a hospital a week before Alexander's scheduled jury appearance.
Under questioning by his attorney, Brandi Harden, Alexander testified that when he sat in the jury box during the first day of the trial and watched Dixon on the bench, he found it difficult to focus on the evidence. His mind wandered, he said, to the days of watching his father. "Being in the courthouse affected me emotionally. It was a little difficult," he said.
Dixon later said that although some observers might find Alexander's emotional distress explanation "convenient" or even "very convenient," he accepted it. He dropped the charges. After the hearing, Harden said her client was "relieved and happy" that the charges were dropped.