A Cathedral City man convicted of second-degree murder in a drunken driving crash could get a new trial if one of his jurors was a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a judge said today at what was to have been a sentencing hearing.
Jason Pappas, 38, was convicted in April in connection with the June 3, 2009, death of Gregory Fisher, 56, of Cathedral City.
The two were best friends, and had been drinking in Fisher’s car until Fisher said he was too drunk to drive and Pappas took over. When a police officer tried to make a traffic stop, Pappas sped away, sparking a brief pursuit that ended when he drove into a tree near Country Club Drive and Highway 111.
In addition to the murder charge, a seven-woman, five-man jury convicted Pappas of evading arrest, misdemeanor driving under the influence and driving with a blood-alcohol level greater 0.08 percent, and he was facing 35 years to life in prison.
But at today’s sentencing hearing, Deputy Public Defender Tom Steelman said one of the jurors was in MADD, prompting Riverside County Superior Court Judge David Downing to direct his clerk to call the female jurors to see if they would be willing to speak to a defense investigator.
“The bottom line is did he get a fair trial with a fair and impartial jury,” Downing said. “I’m not so sure at the moment.”
The judge said that if the questioning showed a juror was a member of MADD, “I will probably grant a new trial.”
He set another hearing on the matter for Aug. 27.
Under California Law, a juror who does not want to speak to attorneys following a trial is not obligated to do so. Downing said if the jurors did not want to be interviewed, the investigation would end.
Deputy District Attorney Grant Kim objected to the probe, saying there was insufficient evidence that a juror concealed membership in MADD.
Steelman argued that if the judge did not grant his request, “we’re turning our backs on everything we stand for … in the American system of justice.”
Steelman put juror number one, Tammy Escobedo, on the witness stand, where she testified she felt coerced by other jurors to convict Pappas of second-degree murder.
Escobedo testified another juror, who she did not identify, made a comment that indicated the panelist was a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Although the judge did not grant the motion for a new trial based on juror coercion, he found the possibility that a juror was a member of MADD of “great concern.”
“I don’t know how this will shake out. I really don’t,” Downing said.
Outside court, Steelman said the judge asked the panelists during jury selection whether they were members of or had an affiliation with MADD.
“All of them either answered with silence or said, `no I’m not,”‘ Steelman said, adding that if a juror was a member of the organization he would have “kicked that person off the jury.”
“The defendant has a right to be tried by an impartial jury. That’s a constitutional right,” he said.
Prosecutors believe the defense concerns “are purely speculative at this point,” said Michael Jeandron, a spokesman with the District Attorney’s Office.
“We recognize and respect that the judge wants to explore this issue out of the abundance of caution. We will let the process move forward and stay committed to holding this defendant accountable,” Jeandron said.