A panel of Fourth District Court of Appeals justices reversed a white-collar fraud conviction in Orange County Wednesday, citing juror misconduct so blatant that it prompted them to consider new instructions to jurors.
The conviction of Gregory Albert Fernandez, who is now serving a seven- year sentence in home confinement, was reversed and sent back to a lower court for a new trial in an opinion handed down today.
The primary issue in the case was the jury forewoman doing research online about the case, something jurors are routinely warned not to do.
“A standard jury instruction tells jurors not to use the Internet in connection with the case on which they are sitting,” the justices wrote in the ruling. “But we live in an age in which information is as available as air. Jurors can look up aspects of a case when they get outside of the courtroom with just a few taps on their mobile phones. So we may have to give some thought to bolstering the instruction.”
Fernandez was the chief executive of a Yorba Linda-based investment firm accused of defrauding an investor. During the trial, jurors wondered about what role the firm’s accountant played in the alleged crime as the defense attorney, Michael Molfetta, fingered him for the wrongdoing, the justices wrote.
Molfetta argued the accountant ripped off the investor, not his client Fernandez, who he said was unaware of what happened with the investor’s money.
While deliberating, the jury forewoman did an online search of the accountant and found information from a civil proceeding, which she apparently confused with a criminal case.
The woman “thought she had discovered a legal proceeding showing the accountant and the defendant had defrauded (the investor)… and that the accountant had been ‘convicted’ of it, but somehow the case got waylaid because of some timing issue,” the justices wrote.
But it was a “civil case that came up on demurrer, so its statement of facts assumed the allegations of the complaint were true, and those allegations were certainly not kind to the defendant,” the justices wrote.
The jury misconduct came to light after the verdict. Orange County Superior Court Judge William Froeberg, who has since retired, “concluded there was no actual prejudice from the juror’s misconduct,” so a motion for a new trial was denied, according to the justices.
“But what the juror herself said she had found — the extraneous information to which she exposed herself — was inherently and substantially likely to have prejudiced her,” the justices wrote. “The juror said she learned the defendant had committed fraud against (the victim), and it was (the victim’s) financial losses that were the very basis of the case.”
Jurors deadlocked on a grand theft charge and four counts of scheming to defraud, but they found the defendant guilty of fraudulently selling unqualified securities and selling unqualified securities without an exemption. The counts that the jury deadlocked on were later dismissed.
Molfetta told City News Service he was “extremely happy” for his client, “who I always felt was wrongfully convicted by a jury whose arrogance was only surpassed by their ignorance.”
The defense attorney added that jurors “ignored their oath and their duty and followed the foreperson who did research during the trial, and told them all that she had done so. Then when this high school science teacher was called on it she flippantly agreed that she ignored her oath, offering only that ‘I am a researcher, that’s what I do.”‘
The errant juror “has cost the county a lot of time and money because she simply did not know what it meant to make a promise (her oath), and then keep it,” Molfetta said. “She should join the area kindergartners who master those skills long before they are eligible for jury duty, and they do it without ever having to research the concepts.”
–City News Service