ALBANY — Call it the case of the texting juror.
After all, she exchanged 7,000 of them while serving at a murder trial and now New York’s highest court has to determine whether her actions poisoned the outcome of a high-profile murder case that had garnered national attention.
It’s a type of 21st Century issue the state Court of Appeals will try to tackle during oral arguments Thursday.
The case centers on Robert Neulander, a Syracuse obstetrician and gynecologist, who is accused of murdering his wife, Leslie, a prominent local philanthropist, in 2012.
Neulander told authorities his wife had fallen in the shower of their 8,000-square-foot home and the death was ruled accidental — at first.
Later, investigators alleged the doctor had staged the scene and had, in fact, bludgeoned Leslie to death. The allegations spurred national headlines, with CBS 48 Hours and NBC Dateline traveling upstate to cover the case.
In 2015, a jury convicted Neulander of second-degree murder and tampering with evidence. He was given a sentence of 20-years-to-life.
But then, an alternate juror came forward.
She informed attorneys that “juror 12” had been exchanging telephone texts with third parties throughout the trial and receiving media “alerts” about the proceedings.
At the defense’s request, a judge ordered a search of the phone — which found the juror had exchanged some 7,000 messages with family members and others, according to the Syracuse Post Standard, that she had deleted hundreds or even thousands of exchanges and that she’d lied in sworn affidavit about following jury instructions.
Some of those messages were revealed in a post-trial hearing. A text from the juror’s father said of Neulander: “Make sure he’s guilty!” A friend called Neulander a “scary person.”
This, despite repeated warnings from the trial judge to jurors not to discuss the case, read about the case or in any way engage in “third party” communications.
As a result, the Appellate Division, New York’s midlevel appeals court, tossed the guilty verdict and ordered a new trial. In a 3-2 ruling, the majority of justices concluded the “juror’s misconduct created a substantial risk of prejudice to Neulander,” according the court documents.
With the verdict dismissed, Neulander posted $1 million bail and was released from prison.
The dissenting judges contended the texts showed the juror didn’t engage in any discussions about the case nor did it show her to be biased against the doctor. That will be a major theme argued by the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office Thursday when it asks New York’s highest court to reinstate the guilty verdict.
“Even if Juror 12’s conduct constituted a misstep, or even misconduct, that misconduct is significantly outweighed by the substantial proof of guilt presented at trial,” Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick wrote in a brief submitted to the Court of Appeals. “It is impossible to insulate an unsequestered jury from any contact with the outside world. Jurors do not live in capsules.”
He continued: “The ambiguous, innocuous and irrelevant content of the unsolicited messages received by Juror 12, and her responses to those messages that repeatedly demonstrated her understanding that she had to decide this case on the evidence supported the trial court’s denial of the motion.”
In contrast, Alexandra Shapiro, Neulander’s attorney, told the court the juror’s “egregious misconduct poisoned Neulander’s trial from start to finish and prejudiced his constitutional right to an impartial jury.” That the juror deleted messages and lied about her actions, Shapiro wrote, further proves she could not be impartial.