CENTENNIAL – The judge in the Aurora theater shooting trial dismissed three jurors Tuesday after learning that one was exposed to news coverage of the case and discussed it with the others.
Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. found the three women violated his orders to avoid outside information on James Holmes’ death-penalty trial and not talk about the case with anyone.
The first woman told Samour her husband called her and told her, on speakerphone, that the district attorney had sent a tweet during testimony, which had been in the news.
The other two jurors, who sometimes socialized with the first juror on breaks, were dismissed because they likely overheard her.
The issue stalled Tuesday’s testimony, but Samour refused to let it derail the trial, which is in its seventh week.
Samour’s cuts came after he separately questioned each juror at length about what they had heard. He tried to ensure both sides were comfortable with the outcome.
He decided against getting rid of a fourth juror who said she had heard the first dismissed woman mention the word “mistrial” but didn’t know what it was about.
Samour also refused a defense request to dismiss a fifth juror, who had informed him about the situation, saying she had been honest and wasn’t compromised. “Thank you for doing the right thing,” he told her when she came forward, visibly distraught.
A total of 21 jurors and alternates remain, with the trial more than halfway done. Samour likely anticipated some panelists would be exposed to media coverage and selected 12 alternates – an unusually large number – as a precaution, legal experts say. The judge in the Boston Marathon bombing trial chose six alternates, likely for similar reasons.
“The judge knew that given the attention and the amount of information that’s out there, there’s a good chance that some jurors are going to disobey him and do what’s natural,” said Alan Tuerkheimer, principal of Trial Methods, a Chicago-based jury consulting firm. “They’ve been accustomed to the whole world at their fingertips. It’s such an automatic response to try to access the world around them.”
A similar situation with fewer alternates might have caused a mistrial, he said.
Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to killing 12 people and wounding 70 others in a crowded movie theater in July 2012.
Samour instructs jurors daily not to consult with outside sources, which includes a barrage of social media. Tuesday’s problems show how difficult that can be, and jurors aren’t alone with missteps.
Last week, the judge scolded District Attorney George Brauchler for tweeting from the courtroom about a videotaped interview of Holmes that was shown to jurors. Brauchler told the judge it was an accident and apologized.
The tweet and defense requests for mistrials were discussed while jurors were away from the courtroom, so they could have known about them only from outside sources, such as social media or news reports.
Under questioning from Samour, the first juror dismissed said she got the call from her husband during lunch last week, asking her about Brauchler’s tweet while another juror was sitting next to her.
The juror said she and her husband argued because he knew she wasn’t supposed to discuss the case.
When asked why she didn’t report the incident, she responded: “I just really don’t pay attention to my husband most of the time. So it wasn’t really important, at that time.”
The juror wiped away tears when Samour told her she was dismissed. During jury selection, the mother of three said she did not follow the news and said staying away from coverage about the trial would not be a problem.
The jury-selection process took nearly three months after 9,000 summonses were sent.
None of the jurors and alternates selected will know who will decide the case until deliberations are about to begin. At that point, the remaining alternates will be dismissed.
Jurors are allowed to go home every night, but they can’t discuss the case with anyone or see or read anything about it. They are, however, allowed to use their phones on breaks. While being questioned Tuesday, some admitted they sometimes see headlines about the trial while online.