Judge’s decision awaited in Hughes jury misconduct issue
Dictionaries don’t belong in jury deliberation rooms, that much is clear from the post-trial proceedings in the case of the man who killed Joey Gingerella.
It is now up to Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed to decide whether a juror’s admission that he used a Merriam-Webster dictionary to look up the definition of manslaughter during deliberations deprived Dante A. Hughes of his right to a fair trial, or whether it was harmless misconduct.
Hughes, 32, faces up to 50 years in prison for manslaughter with a firearm and criminal possession of a firearm, but his attorney, Walter D. Hussey, contends Hughes did not get a fair trial because of the juror’s use of “extrinsic,” or outside, material during deliberations.
Judge Jongbloed heard arguments on Hussey’s motion for a new trial on Tuesday in New London Superior Court and said she would be issuing a decision on or before Hughes’ Oct. 17 sentencing date.
The courtroom gallery was as full for Tuesday’s arguments as it had been during the trial. Family members and friends of Gingerella and Hughes sat on separate sides of the aisle. Groton Town Police detectives who had investigated the case watched from the back row. Victim advocates and a few members of the public who had observed the trial also attended.
Testimony at the trial had revealed that Hughes shot Gingerella in the parking lot of Ryan’s Pub when Gingerella stepped in to stop Hughes from beating his longtime girlfriend, Latoya Knight. Hughes admitted to shooting Gingerella, but claimed it was in self-defense. Jurors rejected the self-defense claim, but struggled to decide whether Hughes was guilty of murder or the reduced charge of manslaughter.
The jury found Hughes not guilty of intentionally murdering Gingerella, but said he was guilty of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm, a crime that involves acting with reckless indifference for human life.
The validity of the verdict was called into question a few days later when a member of the jury told a court clerk that another juror had looked up the definition of manslaughter in the dictionary during deliberations. The judge had repeated the standard instructions to the panel every time they left the courtroom: Don’t do any outside investigation. Rely only on the evidence you hear in the courtroom and only on the court’s instructions on the applicable laws.
The judge called back all the jurors and questioned them in open court last month. One juror admitted he had looked up the definition, but under further questioning said it did not affect his ability to be fair and impartial, and that he was able to follow the court’s instructions, which included the state’s manslaughter statute, when deciding the case.
But Hussey, Hughes’ attorney, argued Wednesday that when first asked about whether the outside information affected his ability to be fair and impartial, the juror had responded, “Yeah, it did. I mean it (the verdict) wasn’t the outcome I wanted.”
Prosecutor Paul J. Narducci cited cases in which courts had found that the use of a dictionary by a juror would not require a new trial. He said that once the Hughes juror told others that he had looked up the dictionary definition, they shut him down and sent a note to the judge asking whether they could use the dictionary. They were told they could not use the dictionary.
“Even though there may have been misconduct here, I would submit the state has met its burden of establishing it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” he argued.