Attorneys: Juror tried to 'friend' witness on Facebook

Fireman Brendan Cawley outside a courtroom after testifying

Fireman Brendan Cawley outside a courtroom after testifying in a case involving two firefighters who jumped to their deaths during an apartment fire in the Bronx. (Feb. 3, 2009) (Credit: Newsday File / Patrick E. McCarthy)

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A juror's attempt to strike up a Facebook relationship with a witness has put convictions at risk in the Black Sunday case of two firefighters who died trying to escape a Bronx inferno.

Defense attorneys, who want the verdicts set aside, say the juror sent the witness a computer message during the trial asking him to keep in contact via the Internet. The juror, whom attorneys would not name, apparently urged the witness to join Facebook - a Web site people use to track down old friends and make new ones. It was not clear what kind of electronic message the juror used to contact the witness.

The juror's action breached rules forbidding contact with witnesses during a trial and could result in contempt charges, defense attorneys said.

"It interferes with due process," said Neal Comer, who represents the company that owns the East 178th Street building where firefighters Lt. Curtis Meyran of Malverne and John Bellew of Pearl River died.

Comer wants the court to impound the juror's computer. "How impartial is it if a juror is trying to contact a witness during the trial?" asked attorney David Goldstein, who represents the building manager, Cesar Rios.

Rios is free on bail pending sentencing. The Bronx district attorney's office had no comment, a spokesman said. Comer and Goldstein said they plan to file motions asking the court to overturn their clients' guilty verdicts.

Two juries deliberated during the trial. One exonerated two tenants who had built walls that prosecutors said confused firefighters trying to escape. The other jury found Rios and the building owner guilty of failing to take steps to get rid of the illegal walls.

After the trial, the witness, believed to be a firefighter, apparently told Bronx prosecutors about the juror's electronic message to him. Prosecutors alerted the trial judge and defense attorneys.

Gerald Shargel, a prominent Manhattan defense attorney, said the juror's contact with the witness "is so beyond the pale that . . . the appearance of impropriety is manifest. It calls the verdict into question."

Eric Freedman, a Hofstra University constitutional law professor, agreed. "A juror is supposed to enter a trial impartially and preserve that impartiality throughout the testimony," Freedman said.

Firefighters Brendan Cawley, Jeffery Cool, Joseph DiBernardo and Eugene Stolowski - all injured in the fire - testified during the trial, which ended in February.

Cawley would not say whether the juror had contacted him. Cool said the juror did not contact him. DiBernardo and Stolowski could not be reached for comment.

"I know about the whole situation with Facebook," Cawley said in a telephone conversation. "I've been warned and told not to discuss it."

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