ALBANY — She exchanged some 7,000 text messages with friends and family while serving on a jury in a high-profile murder trial.
And, in doing so, she poisoned the verdict, New York’s top court ruled Tuesday.
In a ruling reinforcing the rights of the accused, the state Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Robert Neulander, a Syracuse doctor accused of bludgeoning his wife to death in a 2012 case that grabbed national media attention.
The court said Neulander’s right to a fair trial and impartial jury were violated by “Juror 12,” who exchanged messages with associates during the course of the trial, read news stories about the ongoing proceeding and, when confronted about her conduct, lied under oath to the trial judge.
A subsequent forensic audit of the juror’s smartphone revealed her actions – including an attempt to erase her internet-use history — and sparked Neulander’s request to vacate his guilty verdict. A Syracuse trial judge erred in not granting that request, the Court of Appeals said.
“Nothing is more basic to the criminal process than the right of an accused to a trial by an impartial jury,” Judge Rowan D. Wilson wrote for the court in a 7-0 decision. “This is not a case of stray texts or inadvertent misstatements … In this case, a sworn juror was repeatedly and deliberately untruthful about the scope of that misconduct and affirmatively sought to conceal evidence of her misconduct.
“That extraordinary and dishonest behavior by a juror purposefully selected to be a fair and objective arbiter of the facts in the case causes irredeemable injury to the judicial system and the public’s confidence in it,” Wilson said.
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick didn't immediately return a call to comment, though he told the Syracuse Post-Standard he intends to re-try the case. Alexandra Shapiro, Neulander's attorney, said the doctor "and his family greatly appreciate the Court of Appeals’ decision, which reaffirms that every defendant has the right to an impartial jury and a fair trial."
The case centered on Neulander, a Syracuse obstetrician and gynecologist who is accused of murdering his wife, Leslie, a prominent local philanthropist.
Investigators said Neulander bludgeoned her to death, then staged the scene to try to persuade them she had fallen in the shower of their 8,000-square-foot home. The allegations spurred national headlines, with CBS 48 Hours and NBC Dateline traveling upstate to cover the case.
He was convicted and given a 20-years-to-life sentence.
But then, an alternate juror came forward.
She informed attorneys that “Juror 12” had been exchanging telephone texts and receiving media “alerts” about the case throughout the trial.
Some of those texts were revealed in a post-trial hearing. One, from the juror’s father, read: “Make sure he’s guilty!”
After conducting a post-trial hearing, Onondaga County Court Judge Thomas Miller determined the juror committed misconduct but ruled her actions didn’t bias the outcome, in part because proof of Neulander’s guilt was overwhelming.
That was an obvious mistake, Wilson said.
“The right to a fair trial is self-standing,” Wilson said. “And proof of guilt, however overwhelming, can never be permitted to negate this right.”