Judge hears dispute over voiding verdict

Convicted Columbia man seeks new trial because noncitizen sat on the jury

July 17, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

With references to terrorist threats and the Martha Stewart trial as a backdrop, lawyers argued yesterday over whether a resident alien's presence on the jury that convicted a 33-year-old Columbia man of second-degree murder last month should force a Howard County judge to throw out the verdict and order a new trial.

The requirement that jurors be U.S. citizens takes on even greater significance in a time when terrorists "seek to destroy the institutions of this country," said Louis P. Willemin, who represents Marcus D. Owens. Owens was convicted June 10 in the fatal beating of his 2-year- old stepson, Kevonte Davis.

He urged Howard Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure to overturn the verdict.

But prosecutor Mary Murphy said jury verdicts are considered "sacred" and are rarely disturbed. She pointed out a federal judge's decision not to grant Stewart a new trial after defense attorneys alleged that a juror lied about his arrest record on a jury questionnaire.

"Courts try very hard not to overturn the verdict of a jury," Murphy said. "They are sacrosanct."

Leasure said she will issue a ruling by Wednesday. Sentencing for Owens, who was also convicted of child abuse and assault, has been scheduled for Oct. 1.

Yesterday's proceedings came more than a month after Owens trial juror Adeyemi Alade, a resident alien from Nigeria, called court officials to say he might have served on the panel by mistake. Alade has said he has a driver's license, and Howard County uses the Motor Vehicle Administration database, which includes noncitizens, as a source of potential jurors.

Alade, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, later testified that he "missed" references to citizenship on a juror questionnaire and only learned of the requirement after talking with a colleague the night of the verdict.

The discovery immediately threw the verdict's fate in question - and left lawyers for both sides scrambling for answers.

It also sent Kevonte's mother's emotions into a tailspin.

"It's been really tough, especially with July 30 coming up," said Kenesha Davis, who had been married to Owens for five days at the time of Kevonte's death on July 30. "I was kind of devastated because - just the thought of having to go through it all again."

Yesterday, Murphy argued that Owens and his lawyers never asked potential jurors about their citizenship status when they had the chance during the jury selection process. And no one has come forward to say that Alade's intentions were anything but "honorable," she said. Citizenship is a statutory requirement of jury service - not a constitutional one, she said.

But Willemin said Owens' right to a fair trial was compromised because only 11 legal jurors - not the 12 required by law - decided his fate. Lawyers are powerless to force a trial judge to ask juror qualification questions during the jury selection process, he said, and the jury deliberation process is so cloaked in secrecy that it is impossible to determine jurors' thought processes.

"We are unable to determine the prejudicial impact of that lack of citizenship," he said.

After yesterday's hearing, Owens' stepfather and mother, Thomas and Doris Jenkins, said they were hoping that the judge's decision would give Owens another chance to "present his side."

"All we can do now is wait for the judge's decision," Doris Jenkins said. "Hopefully, he'll have another shot at a trial."

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