Arguments made for jury misconduct at trial

By: Matt Osborn

Posted: 4/20/06

© Copyright 2007, Keene Equinox

Fifteen years ago Pam Smart's murder trial, which began on March 4, 1991, rocked a small New Hampshire community and sent the nation reeling. As details of the plot to kill her husband, his execution style shooting and Smart's affair with the 16-year-old trigger-man unfolded; media from around the globe converged upon the small Exeter courtroom with a gold-rush like abandon. Although it was the events surrounding the murder which inspired a B-list movie, the trial itself was more than worthy of its own cinematic feature.

The drama and controversy that would come to epitomize the Smart trial, and specifically the jury, began before the opening statements were even read. Prior to the trial, defense attorneys requested the case be moved to another location and that the jury be sequestered due to the intense media coverage.

Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Douglas Gray denied both motions. The defense argued, and continued to do so throughout and following the trial, that too many people in the area knew the story and already had pre-conceived notions of Smart's guilt.

Lending credibility to these claims were the dismissals of many prospective jurors from the first day of the selection process, Feb. 19, 1991, for their previous knowledge of the case, and in one instance, according to a Feb. 21, 1991 New Hampshire Union Leader article, the removal of seven prospective jurors for discussing the upcoming trial and its publicity.

Further examples of discussion during the selection process were found on documents acquired from the Rockingham County Superior Court, in which excerpts from perspective juror's interviews and affidavits were listed. One of the statements included read, "Lisa Weber stated that in the jury pool room prior to trial, there were general discussions taking place concerning the Pamela Smart trial and a general consensus developed that Pam Smart was guilty."

This same section continued "Furthermore, Maureen Blake stated that there were newspapers present in the jury pool room and a discussion of the Pamela Smart case was taking place."

Despite the uneasiness of these comments, and their direct link to the violation of Judge Gray's orders not to speak about the case, the most alarming excerpt found in the document was, "Juror, Donald Vigue, said he heard one elderly woman who he believed sat on the deliberating jury say Pame (sic) Smart was guilty."

In addition to these statements, after the trial ended, an anonymous letter dated March 26, 1991, which was obtained by the Equinox, was sent to the Attorney General's office claiming that one of the jurors, who had appeared on a morning talk show praising the jury's actions and decision, had been in the jury pool with the author discussing the "wickedness" of Smart. "There was this woman talking about the Smart case…and she's going on about what a good job the jurors did…This is the same woman who was sitting in that room at the Rockingham County Courthouse blabbering about what she had read about the wickedness of Pamela Smart."

The letter also highlighted the writer's surprise and concern at the lack of prospective jurors who admitted their knowledge of the case and inability to be unbiased when questioned by Judge Gray after discussing Smart's guilt and the news coverage openly. "I sincerely thought that most, if not all, of the people in that room would be honest enough with themselves to admit that they had been swayed by the media attention. To my surprise, there were not very many people who were released (or wanted to be) at that point."

Although there was surprise by some in the legal community during the trial at Judge Gray's decision not to sequester the jury from the beginning, and lawyers not affiliated with the case told papers such as the Hampton Union and Portsmouth Herald that it would be grounds for a defense appeal, those involved in the state's side of the case offered explanations for Gray's decision.

Trial prosecutor Paul Maggiotto recalled that, at the time, the financial burden of sequestering the jury was a concern, "Cost, lots of money to put up 14 to 16 people."

In addition Jeff Strelzin, a law clerk in the Superior Court at the time of the trial and now the Senior Assistant Attorney General of New Hampshire, said that "there's a school of thought that if a jury is sequestered it will affect the outcome."

According to an article posted on Forensic Psychiatry and Medicine's website, this "school of thought" often refers to the isolation jurors experience when they are removed from their normal environments for long periods of time.

"The longer people are isolated from their loved ones and their usual surroundings, the more they surround themselves mentally with familiar experiences, especially in response to complex evidence that seems threatening by virtue of its unfamiliarity. Thus, when jurors daydream…they hear the evidence (even more then they ordinarily would) through the filter of their own memories, fantasies, and dreams."

Maggiotto, who is now a practicing defense attorney, also believes that the threat of sequestering would have deterred potential jurors, "I'm not sure people would have volunteered for the jury if they knew they would be cut off from their families," he said.

Strelzin also added, when asked what the grounds for sequestering a jury would be, that juries are traditionally sequestered when the Judge believes there is a direct threat to the jury.

While there remains much debate over the threat the media's intense coverage posed to the jury, Smart's was the first trial covered by Court TV and the first to be broadcast live from start to finish, there is little doubt that the decision not to sequester led directly to the controversy surrounding some of the jury members.

The first of the jurors to be accused of misconduct was a Winnacunnet High School graduate named Brian Adams.

Suspicions arose around Adams after Linda Wojas, Smart's mother, received an anonymous phone call just before 10:30 p.m. one night during the trial. When she answered, a man on the other end of the line told Wojas there was a juror at a bar and that he was discussing the case. After giving Adams' name, the man hung up.

Wojas reported the incident and Adams was questioned by Judge Gray but, to the dismay of the Wojas family and Smart defense team, the court found no wrongdoing on the part of the juror and no action was taken.

At the time of the call a tap had been placed on the Wojas family's phone to intercept threats that were being made to the household. When the defense requested a record of incoming calls to the house the police log showed that none had been received at 10:20 p.m., the time Wojas claimed she had answered the phone.

After the trial, it was revealed that the state had checked the log for 10:20 a.m. rather than 10:20 p.m. and that, in fact, a call had been placed to the Wojas residence on the night and time Wojas had claimed.

While Adams was accused of juror misconduct for his actions during the trial, two of his peers were criticized for their apparent profit seeking plans after the verdict had been read.

Karen Sicard and Alec Beckett, both members of the jury, found themselves under intense scrutiny after the trial for what defense attorneys claimed was their solicitation of profit for their stories. Sicard found herself facing serious legal issues when she was accused of trying to sell tapes she made during the trial to Smart's appeal lawyer's office.

Apparently, each night after the trial, Sicard would record the day's happenings onto cassette tapes. According to a May 1991 Portsmouth Herald article, the tapes contained Sicard's thoughts and recollections of what occurred in the courtroom each day.

The same article said that, according to Smart's Defense and appeals attorney J. Albert Johnson and affidavits filed by Sicard's friends Keith and Diane Ham, Sicard was looking to sell the tapes to movie or TV producers for profit.

The Herald article went on to claim that the court documents also accused Sicard of discussing the case with Keith Ham during the first night of deliberations at a Market Basket Supermarket.

The allegations against Sicard came about after Johnson claimed she accepted an offer from his law firm to purchase the tapes for $25,000. Sicard denied both the accusations of pursuing the offer and discussing the case during deliberations.

"No. I didn't talk at all. That's why I made my tapes, to get it all off my chest so that I wouldn't be tempted," Sicard told Judge Gray, according to the transcript of an interview he held with her in chambers regarding the tapes.

After interviewing those involved and investigating the charges, Judge Gray found no wrongdoing on the part of Sicard. Prosecutors also dismissed the accusations, saying they misrepresented the events that led to Sicard's offer to sell the tapes and that, essentially, she was set up.

"The defense counsel, through his investigators, offered the bait of thousands of dollars, and when Ms. Sicard took the bite, he cried, 'Juror Misconduct'," wrote Maggiotto in a legal response quoted in the Aug. 16 1991 edition of the Newburyport Daily News.

While defense attorneys attacked Karen Sicard on the legality of her tapes and plans to sell them for profit, their approach to Alec Beckett was less formal.

Johnson filed court papers claiming that Beckett had received a reported $15,000 for an article he wrote for the Boston Globe recounting his experience in deliberations.

Although no charges were filed by the defense, they claimed that Beckett and other jurors may have been tainted by motives of profit during the trial.

Beckett, a recent Harvard graduate at the time of the trial and, at 25, the youngest member of the jury, laughed at the accusation when questioned by reporters. He told the Portsmouth Herald that the Globe paid him "less than 10 percent of that amount."

Beckett told reporters that he wanted his expenses covered and his only motive behind the piece was to show, in the face of claims that the jury was tainted, that they did in fact work hard to be fair. "It seemed our side had to be told," he said to the Portsmouth Herald.

Although there was a great deal of controversy surrounding Judge Gray's decision not to sequester the jury at the beginning of the trial, his threat to sequester the jury on the Thursday, the second day of deliberations, after closing statements had been read caused anger from those in Smart's camp.

Smart's lawyers and her mother, Linda Wojas, believed that the jury rushed to a hasty decision to avoid being sequestered in a Hampton motel for the weekend. Wojas claims that at the time the Judge informed the jury they would be sequestered there were still six undecided votes and that the jury then hastily reached a guilty verdict.

Jurors for the case vehemently deny these charges and, as Beckett describes in his article for the Globe, allowed themselves to be sequestered overnight to ensure they had enough time to come to the appropriate verdict. "By 3 p.m. on that second day of deliberations, I knew that a consensus had essentially been reached. But two of the women and one of the men would not commit to anything until they had slept on it."

Beckett and other members of the Smart jury have publicly stated that it was not the Judge or the press that sealed Smart's fate, but her own words.

"The doubts that several jurors had as a result of the inconsistencies and alternatives that the defense had pointed out in the tapes were simply overwhelmed by the sound of the defendant subtly, not so subtly, incriminating herself," wrote Beckett in his article for the Globe, referring to the taped conversations between Cecelia Pierce and Smart, discussing her husband's murder.

"There was definite, definite, definite proof she planned this, especially in the tapes" Charlotte Jefts, 75, the jury's oldest member, told the Union Leader after the trial.

Brian Adams, the same juror named in the anonymous bar call, reiterated his fellow juror's denials of misconduct involving the verdict, "There were no improprieties in the jury deliberations," he told RCN staff reporter Dan Hackett.

Maggiotto agreed with these claims believing, despite the defense's charges of jury members seeking monetary gains rather than justice, that the jurors took their responsibilities seriously, "This was the biggest thing most of these people had ever done in their lives…They followed the rules."

Although the jury is adamant that their conviction of Smart was correct, and based on the tapes not the media, Smart's attorneys believe that the verdict was indeed affected by the Judge's decision.

"We asked at the beginning of the case for the jury to be sequestered," said Smart's defense attorney Mark Sisti, "This particular judge shut the door on that option. I think it hurt the integrity of the deliberations."

Not only does Smart's defense lawyer question the lack of sequestering the jury, so does her mother.

"You put in place the safeguards to guarantee the defendant a fair trial," said Wojas, "Judge Gray abused his discretionary powers in the court…he refused to put in place those safeguards."

While it is clear Smart's family remains adamant that the trial was handled improperly, the prosecution is predictably satisfied with the course the case followed. Though he concedes it might have been a mistake not to sequester the jury, Maggiotto feels no loss at the decisions made by Judge Gray.

"Maybe it might have been a better idea to sequester the jury," he said before adding, "I'm not troubled the jury wasn't sequestered."

(Efforts to reach both Karen Sicard and Alex Beckett were unsuccessful)

© Copyright 2007 Keene Equinox