Mistrial Declared in Murder Case After Jury Bias Flap : Courts: The case, stemming from a Gardena police raid, was complex. Jurors’ allegations of racism and physical threats made it more so.
When Mack Charles Moore went on trial for murder, attorneys on both sides warned jurors at the outset that the case would be complicated and difficult to decide.
But no one realized just how tangled it would become.
On Monday, Torrance Superior Court Judge Cecil Mills declared a mistrial in the case, which had evolved into a public sparring match among jurors over allegations of racism, bias and physical threats.
The actual two-week trial went smoothly enough as prosecutors tried to prove that Moore was guilty of second-degree murder under the state’s “provocative act” law. During a narcotics raid on a Gardena apartment, he allegedly swung a shotgun at a policeman, provoking the officer to fire a shot that killed another man, Dexter Herbert.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Gray tried to prove that Herbert, not Moore, was holding the gun when the officer fired the fatal shot.
Last week, the case went to the jury for deliberations. Then the trouble began.
The first day’s discussions were lost because one juror had to leave the country for a prepaid vacation trip. After an alternate was seated, the jurors began again.
Two days later, the jury foreman twice passed notes to the court clerk, saying the jurors could not reach a verdict. During a discussion with the judge about the notes, several members of the panel complained that one juror, Harold Winston, was biased against police officers.
Another juror, Stanley Kielniarz, said he was so disturbed by Winston’s statements that he took the unusual step of going to the district attorney’s office during a lunch hour to ask anonymously what to do if a juror seemed to be biased.
The complaints evolved into a two-hour court hearing during which all 12 jurors were interviewed by the judge and attorneys in the case.
Winston, the panel’s sole black juror and a staunch holdout for a not-guilty verdict, denied making any biased statements. But Judge John P. Shook ultimately removed Winston from the panel, saying he had “prejudged the credibility of the police officers in this case.”
The remaining alternate, a white man, replaced Winston, and deliberations began all over again.
Winston charged that his removal from the case--which involves a black defendant and white police officers--was prompted by racism.
“I was removed for saying that the police have a different attitude in the black neighborhoods than they do in the white neighborhoods, and that’s no revelation to anybody,” Winston said.
“I was removed, and you’ll note that the man who discussed the case with the district attorney outside the jury room was not removed,” he said.
After Kielniarz’s name and city of residence appeared in newspaper accounts of Winston’s dismissal, Kielniarz said, he received a threatening telephone call.
In a note to the court, Kielniarz said the anonymous caller asked: “Do you have your white sheet for your Ku Klux Klan meeting? . . . You’re going to need protection.”
Although Kielniarz told Judge Mills, who took over the case when Shook went on vacation, that the threat would not interfere with his ability to deliberate the case fairly, Mills declared a mistrial because the entire panel had been told of the threat. Jurors said their most recent secret-ballot vote had been 11-1 in favor of conviction.
On Tuesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Gilbert Garcetti refiled the murder charge. A second trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 5.
Several jurors, all of whom said they did not want their names used, expressed frustration that the case was taken away from them.
“I feel violated. I feel absolutely violated,” said one woman. “We were so close. We were within minutes--I know that--of reaching a verdict. After all this pain, we should have been allowed to complete our work.”
Other jurors, however, said they were not so sure that the panel would have reached a verdict.
“That (last vote) was just a spur-of-the-moment vote. Several jurors were going every which way still,” said one man. “I really don’t know whether we ever would have reached a decision.”
Kielniarz said he was saddened by the mistrial.
“I would rather have seen the case resolved one way or the other,” he said.
The jurors disagreed that Winston’s removal was related to his race.
“It didn’t matter to me what color anybody was,” said a juror from Redondo Beach. “To me, there was just evidence for us to look at and review. It was the act that mattered, not anybody’s race.”
Winston said he hopes that the jury selected to hear the second trial will include more black members. But he added that even if it does, Moore may not get a fair trial in the Torrance courthouse because residents of the South Bay’s affluent areas “have nothing in common with him.”
“When they see a young black man there charged with murder and they have to compare his story to that of the police, I think they are inclined, because of their background and their upbringing, to believe he’s guilty unless he has some hell of a piece of evidence that proves he’s not guilty,” Winston said.
“He is not given the benefit of the doubt. He is not innocent until proven guilty.”