Questions rise about jury’s ability to remain untainted through delays of murder trial

The murder trial of two men suspected of killing Tracy Crews in 2008 has had myriad twists and turns.

None was bigger than the bombshell leveled this week, implicating Sheena Robinson-Crews, the victim’s widow, as a possible co-conspirator in his murder.

The revelation shifted suspicion from defendants William Brown and Nigel Joseph Dawson, who are on trial for fatally shooting Crews on Sept. 12, 2008, shortly after he tucked his then-2-year-old daughter into bed inside his Whittaker Avenue home. It has also led to several delays in testimony while attorneys hash out evidentiary issues and plot their course of action.

While Brown and Dawson’s attorneys do not expect to request a mistrial, there is mounting concern about whether the jury, which is not sequestered, has been tainted by the innumerable interruptions. The jury isn’t expected to resume hearing evidence until at least Monday.

The judge, Andrew Smithson, wondered if the lapse in testimony has given jurors time to draw conclusions about reasons for the delays. He also chastised The Trentonian for “misleading” coverage during a hearing this week and said he was concerned about it getting back to the jury.

Jurors are specifically instructed not to research, read or watch coverage of a case they’re serving on, but a local defense attorney said it’s expected someone will flout the judge’s order.

In fact, defense attorney Jack Furlong, who is not involved in the murder trial but has casually followed it, said he’d be shocked if jurors involved in the Tracy Crews murder trial haven’t read about it in the newspaper given some of the lurid details.

The prosecution said Crews was betrayed by Brown, his best friend, former roommate and the best man at his wedding. New reports recently turned over to the defense suggest Sheena Robinson-Crews, who was serving time on a drug charge in a Pennsylvania state prison, confessed to an inmate she set up her husband’s murder.

“I think they have been reading it as much as I think the Titanic is overdue in New York Harbor,” Furlong said. “Both questions in my judgment are rhetorical. The answers in both cases are, yes, unequivocally.”

Smithson is no rookie to high-profile trials. In 1997, he presided over the murder trial of Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who was ultimately convicted of killing 7-year-old Megan Kanka.

In the Crews’ case, he has taken steps to try to temper the steady trickle of information, on several occasions roping attorneys into chambers and discussing the case on record at sidebar, out of earshot of reporters.

While legal experts said the judge’s efforts frustrate media trying to cover the trial, Smithson’s tactics are intended to safeguard the defendants’ right to a fair trial.

In the past, judges would have simply sequestered a jury if they believed it was at risk of being exposed to prejudicial material, but Furlong said it is an “extremely rare phenomenon in cost-conscious days.”

Furlong pointed to a recent example of jury misconduct as confirmation that Smithson’s concerns are justified.

Furlong convinced a federal judge to set aside the verdict for Tyreek Harrington, who was convicted after a three-day trial in 2013 of being a convicted felon in possession of a sawed-off shotgun.

One juror commented on a newspaper article shortly after the verdict was announced. In it, she described Harrington’s Bloods gang ties, which were not part of trial evidence. The court interviewed the juror, and she admitted searching the defendant’s name before trial.

“Every lawyer, every judge, is fully aware that jurors are going online for information,” Furlong said. “It’s too easy. The only thing you can do is give them a charge and instruction not to do that and place them on their [oath].”

In 2012, a Bergen judge actually fined jury foreman $500 for going online to research possible penalties for a defendant in a drug case, according to the Cliff View Pilot. The judge, Peter E. Doyne, wrote that a “clear message” needed to be sent jurors and found juror Daniel Kaminsky in contempt of court, the Pilot reported.

But Furlong said juror contempt is the exception not the rule because it could have a chilling effect on a person’s willingness to engage in his or her civic duty.

“Judges are very loath to seriously sanction jurors who step out of line,” he said. “We’re trying to expand the jury pool, not contract it.”

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