As Omar Euceda's lawyer opened up the case file to start working on an appeal of Euceda's murder conviction, he found something surprising: a jury note that neither side knew about at trial. There was no record of a court response to the note, and, according to an opinion released today by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the trial judge later determined it "fell through the cracks."
A three-judge appellate panel ruled today that the lost note was significant enough to warrant a new trial for Euceda in District of Columbia Superior Court.
According to the opinion, Euceda and another man were accused of trying to rob two drug dealers and killing one of them, Walter Kirkland, in November 2003. During deliberations, the jury sent several notes that the judge shared with both sides. The presiding judge, now-Chief Judge Lee Satterfield, was out of court for part of deliberations. While Satterfield was out, former Superior Court Judge James Boasberg, now a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, stepped in to deal with any issues.
After several days, the jury found Euceda guilty in August 2006 of murder and a slew of related charges, including attempted armed robbery. His lawyer then discovered another jury note in his file which was stamped with a date and time when Satterfield was out of court. The note asked for clarification of the elements of the attempted armed robbery charge.
There was no record of the note being shared with the lawyers, and jurors interviewed later said they vaguely remembered the note. One recalled being told by the court's clerk that there wouldn't be any more answers from the court at that time and the instructions they already had were sufficient.
Judge Corinne Beckwith, writing for the appeals court, said the communication between the jury and the trial court—or, in this case, the clerk—violated Euceda's constitutional rights. The government argued that the clerk's supposed response, that the jury should rely on the trial judge's instructions, was basically correct, so any error was harmless.
The appeals court disagreed, finding the jury couldn't have gotten clear answers to its question from the previous instructions. The court also found the jury's question about the attempted armed robbery charge affected the murder charge, making a new trial necessary.
"Considering the substantial confusion surrounding such a fundamental issue pertaining to Mr. Euceda‘s guilt of the most serious charges against him, and considering the inexplicable mishandling of the note and inadequate response during the critical deliberations stage, the violation of Mr. Euceda‘s right to be present and to be informed of jury notes was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt," Beckwith wrote.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, William Miller, declined to comment. Euceda's lawyer, solo practitioner Deborah Persico, could not immediately be reached.
Judges Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and Phyllis Thompson also heard the case.