Juror probe ordered in ‘Zoloft defense’ case

Former Westminster police Det. Anthony Orban, left, is shown with attorney James Blatt, who called for an investigation into alleged juror misconduct.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A San Bernardino County judge ordered an inquiry Thursday into allegations that a member of the jury that rejected the “Zoloft defense” of a former Westminster police detective who was convicted of rape failed to disclose that she had used the antidepressant.

The defendant, Anthony Orban, claimed to have been in a drug-induced blackout caused by Zoloft when he abducted and sexually assaulted an Ontario Mills mall waitress in 2010.

Orban’s attorney, James Blatt of Los Angeles, told Superior Court Judge Shahla Sabet that after the verdict in late June one of the jurors contacted his office. The juror said that shortly after the panel reached its verdict he overhead another juror saying she had taken Zoloft but that “it didn’t make her crazy,” according to a defense motion.

Blatt argued that the statement showed a “presumed prejudice” because the juror failed to disclose that fact during the initial jury selection process, when jurors were asked if they had taken Zoloft or had strong opinions about psychotropic drugs.

In ordering the inquiry, Sabet said Orban had the right to 12 unbiased jurors. If the court finds there was misconduct, Orban could receive a new trial.

A hearing was set for Sept. 14.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Debbie Ploghaus opposed the inquiry, saying that even if the allegations were true there was no evidence that they influenced the verdict. Ploghaus also noted that the juror making the allegation, identified as Juror No. 4, was identified by another member of the panel as the lone holdout before a guilty verdict was reached.

Because of a court-imposed gag order in the case, neither Ploghaus nor Blatt could comment on the judge’s decision.

Orban’s attorney also alleged that Juror No. 9 and Juror No. 11 had discussed being either a victim of domestic violence or having relatives who were victims. Blatt argued that the jurors failed to disclose this information during jury questioning.

The judge tentatively ruled against that argument, saying that some victims of domestic abuse do not consider the incidents to be crimes unless they were reported to the police or prosecuted.

The jurors found Orban guilty of kidnapping, rape and multiple counts of sexual assault. They also rejected Orban’s insanity defense during a separate phase of the trial that focused on his mental state during the attack.

On Thursday, deputies escorted Orban into the courtroom. He was in shackles, wore a forest-green jail jumpsuit and his head was shaved. Orban was scheduled to be sentenced, and is probably facing life in prison, but that was postponed due to the hearings on the juror misconduct allegations.

The victim did not attend Thursday’s hearing. Now 27 years old, she testified during the trial that Orban kidnapped her as she walked to her car in the mall parking lot, then forced her to drive to Fontana, where he raped and tormented her inside her SUV.

She said she was able to escape when Orban was distracted by a cellphone call.