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A ‘draining’ four days: Behind the scenes of jury deliberations in the trial of Hossein Nayeri

Hossein Nayeri
Hossein Nayeri looks on in the Newport Beach courtroom where he was convicted Friday of participating in the abduction and torture of a marijuana dispensary owner in 2012.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

An Orange County jury of eight women and four men spent four days deliberating in the kidnapping and torture case against Hossein Nayeri — a record for veteran prosecutor Matt Murphy, who is accustomed to trying cases mired in sinister motives, gut-wrenching details and gore.

“I’ve never had a jury out this long,” Murphy, an Orange County senior deputy district attorney, said Friday after Nayeri was convicted of three counts, marking the conclusion of Murphy’s final case in his 26-year tenure with the county prosecutor’s office.

Jurors reached their verdict late Thursday in the month-long trial, which featured emotional testimony from Nayeri, his ex-wife and the two victims. The decision was announced Friday morning in a Newport Beach courtroom.

Nayeri was found guilty of two counts of felony kidnapping and one count of torture. A sentencing enhancement allegation of inflicting great bodily injury was found untrue. The jury deadlocked on one count of mayhem.

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A charge of first-degree burglary was dismissed Monday after prosecutors motioned to do so to “streamline” the case.

Hossein Nayeri, accused in the violent abduction of two Newport Beach residents in an alleged attempt to extort $1 million, was convicted Friday of kidnapping and torture.

Prosecutors alleged that Nayeri, 40, masterminded a plot in which masked intruders abducted a medical marijuana dispensary owner and his female roommate from their Newport Beach home in 2012 and beat, tortured and sexually mutilated the man before the victims were left bound in the Mojave Desert. The motive, authorities said, was to steal $1 million the kidnappers thought the dispensary owner had buried in the desert.

When Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett polled the jurors in court Friday to confirm their votes, each member responded “yes,” though one woman, juror No. 6, took a long pause and gave an audible sigh before affirming her verdict.

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Afterward in the judge’s chamber, defense attorney Salvatore Ciulla requested that Prickett poll the jury again to determine whether any juror’s vote had been unduly influenced.

Prickett declined to do so, explaining that the jurors had reached the verdict Thursday night and had time to go home, think about the deliberations away from their colleagues and “sleep on it.” The jury also met for about 20 minutes Friday morning before handing in the verdict. Prickett judged that to be ample time for any objections.

“One juror in particular had a hard time,” Ciulla said when asked what prompted his request. “She hesitated.”

“I’m sure she was a lone juror for many days,” Ciulla said, noting her “body language” in the jury box. “I did it mostly for her.”

Beth Burbage, the jury forewoman, said in an interview Friday that although most jurors went into the jury room leaning toward guilty but ready to deliberate, juror No. 6 wanted “straight acquittal on everything.”

Burbage said the juror found Nayeri credible in his testimony, in which he denied any involvement in the crime, and didn’t believe Nayeri’s ex-wife Cortney Shegerian, who was granted immunity from prosecution in 2017 as a result of her cooperation with investigators.

A case with so many facts and facets was a “challenge,” Burbage said.

“The way all the evidence was presented, it was kind of disconcerting sometimes, like ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ ” Burbage recalled. But with the closing arguments, “it all came together,” she said.

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Defendant Hossein Nayeri returned to the witness stand Wednesday with a more conciliatory tone after his testimony the day before ended in heated exchanges.
Hossein Nayeri’s attorney tried Friday to instill doubt in the jury about the prosecution’s argument that Nayeri was the mastermind behind the kidnapping and extortion scheme that targeted a Newport Beach marijuana dispensary owner in 2012.

Nayeri’s behavior on the witness stand demonstrated an “angry and controlling person,” Burbage said, affirming some of the testimony in the case, including Shegerian’s.

However, juror No. 6 was “sympathetic” to him, Burbage said, and asserted that she would have answered questions in a similar manner were she in Nayeri’s place.

“I’m not going to speculate about why she felt the way she did,” Burbage said. “It was really weird.”

All the jurors were upset at one point or another, Burbage said. “It was a draining experience. People cried.”

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life,” said Burbage, who worked nights outside the courtroom to keep up with her job as a leadership development executive. She believes her experience teaching executive skills and organizing people might have contributed to her being given the duties of forewoman.

Burbage said she worked with the jury on the following premise: “Could we get to the point where we all felt we did the very best job we could?”

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She credited another juror who created “great logic maps” on a whiteboard that helped visualize and connect the facts and facilitated the process that secured the unanimous decision needed for the verdict.

The group convened Friday morning to review everyone’s votes and see whether the 11-1 deadlock on the mayhem count would budge, but nothing changed, she said.

“The sticking point was whether he personally participated in mutilation,” Burbage said.

The jury concluded there wasn’t enough evidence that Nayeri participated in severing the dispensary owner’s penis, so it did not affirm the enhancement allegation of inflicting great bodily injury, Burbage said.

However, “because of aiding and abetting, we could find him guilty” of the count of torture, she said.

Nayeri is expected in court for sentencing Oct. 11. He will not be retried on the mayhem charge, the district attorney’s office said Friday.

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