Judge dismisses juror who uses cellphone during deliberations in Hunt murder trial

Tri-City HeraldFebruary 24, 2014 

— A juror in the murder trial of Joshua H. Hunt was dismissed Monday afternoon because she used her cellphone during deliberations to research the “definition of premeditation.”

An alternate juror quickly was called in to Benton County Superior Court so the panel of 12 could start over in deciding Hunt’s role in the July 4 shooting death of Joshua Snapp.

Judge Carrie Runge advised the new panel that they were to “disregard previous deliberations and begin anew.”

Jurors went home Monday evening after discussing the case for 21⁄2 hours. They will be back this morning. “If you’re willing to pull out an electronic device while in deliberations, what are you doing after hours?” defense attorney Shane Silverthorn pointed out to the court in asking for the woman’s dismissal.

Hunt is charged with first-degree murder with a firearm allegation. However, the jury was given the option of convicting on a lesser crime of second-degree murder or first-degree manslaughter.

Second-degree murder involves intent, but not premeditation like first-degree. Manslaughter is for recklessly causing the death of another person.

Definitions of each charge and its specific wording are read to jurors as part of the legal instructions given before closing arguments. That packet of instructions then goes with them to the jury room.

Snapp died from three gunshot wounds to the head and chest. The 17-year-old Richland boy’s body was left in an isolated area of Richland and only found by police after co-defendant John C.I. Young told a convenience store clerk in Benton City that he’d just seen someone shot.

Hunt — in his interview with sheriff’s detectives and his trial testimony — claimed his judgment was clouded from a combination of marijuana, methamphetamine and alcohol. He admitted shooting Snapp in the chest, but claimed it wasn’t planned and that he didn’t know what he was doing before it was too late.

But prosecutors allege Hunt planned the attack, getting a gun weeks before and asking friends about a good spot to kill somebody because he was angry at Snapp and believed the teen was a confidential informant and a thief.

The case went to the jury Friday after six days of testimony and arguments about the evidence. Jurors had resumed deliberations Monday morning.

It is rare in Benton County for an alternate to be brought in during the middle of deliberations.

The judge and the bailiff repeatedly told jurors not to do their own research or to view media reports on the case. A large sign also hangs in each jury room with those warnings.

Runge recalled a now-retired judge having a similar issue on another case and said the state Court of Appeals upheld his decision to go forward with the same jury.

Runge appeared to be comfortable in doing that, but decided to go with the replacement option since Prosecutor Andy Miller, Deputy Prosecutor Julie Long and Silverthorn all were in agreement.

Silverthorn of Ellensburg first met with his client during a short recess before saying he was in favor of it.

The attorneys picked two alternates in Hunt’s case and, with the replacement, the panel remained four men and eight women.

The judge could have declared a mistrial, which would have meant a whole new jury and second trial.

Miller said he believes that Benton County jurors “do a great job,” and is convinced that no one on this panel heard anything of substance about what the woman may have seen on her phone.

“I give a little bit of credit to this juror, I think she was nervous,” Miller said. “But why in the world she thought it OK to contact Google … I can’t tell you how many times you’ve told them not to.”

Bailiff Greg Gill said in court that a male juror notified him about the action before the jury left for a lunch break.

The man first was brought into the courtroom for individual questioning about what happened.

He said the woman indicated during deliberations that she couldn’t immediately find the definition of premeditation in the packet of legal instructions, so she used her phone to look it up on the Internet.

The man said he was shocked when he realized it and questioned if she really was doing personal research.

“Then she blamed me for ratting her out,” he said.

The woman, who was brought in separately to the courtroom, said she flipped through the packet but couldn’t find the definition, so she grabbed her phone. She said while typing it into her phone’s browser, she asked another juror to see if they could find premeditation in the paperwork.

“I wasn’t trying to do anything wrong or hide it,” the woman told Runge. “I announced it to everybody.”

She said the Google search pulled up several results and, though she did not click on any of them, all of the links showed a simple definition.

The woman further explained that once her colleagues found the jury instructions, it was comparable to what she saw on her phone about forming a thought prior to committing a crime.

The juror said she never shared what was on her phone with her colleagues, and immediately shut it down.

w Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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