CINCINNATI — Two weeks after a jury found former Cincinnati council member PG Sittenfeld guilty of bribery and extortion charges, Sittenfeld's legal team is accusing a juror of misconduct in an effort to win a new trial.
Defense attorneys filed a motion on Friday demanding an inquiry into a juror they said made repeated posts to Facebook during the trial and while the jury was deliberating. The motion also says attorneys moved to ask a mistrial be declared before the verdict was read as a result of the posts, but were denied.
The motion asks the court to conduct a forensic examination of the juror's phone and alleges that the juror made multiple posts to Facebook that garnered "many comments by others."
In the motion, attorneys allege Juror X posted to Facebook that another juror, referred to as Juror Y, shouldn't have been on the jury because Juror Y "hates anyone that shares the same profession as our person on trial." In the comments to that post, someone shared a news article about the case.
Juror X also complained in a post about a third juror, referred to as Juror Z in the lawsuit, for talking too much.
U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole has thus far kept the identity of the jurors involved in the trial a secret from the public and the media, so WCPO has not yet confirmed the content of any social media posts made by jurors.
"Juror X made the posts during jury selection, during the trial, and on the night before the verdict was announced," reads the motion.
Throughout the trial Cole repeatedly warned jurors to stay away from media accounts of the case. He also told them not to do their own research or talk about the trial with anyone other than fellow jurors.
“A juror who violates these restrictions jeopardizes the fairness of these proceedings, and a mistrial could result, which would require the entire trial process to start over,” Cole told jurors before they began deliberations.
Court house staff members were the ones who discovered the Facebook posts made by Juror X. The court provided attorneys with screenshots of Juror X's posts, including comments made by others in response to the posts.
According to the motion, Cole questioned both Juror X and Juror Y immediately after the verdict was read. When Sittenfeld's attorneys moved to preserve the evidence on Juror X's phone, she told court officials she deleted the posts after the post-verdict meeting with Cole.
Former prosecutor and Cincinnati city council member Steve Goodin said whether Sittenfeld could win the right to a new trial depends heavily on the details of what the juror said in Facebook posts. Goodin was also in the court room as the jury read Sittenfeld's verdict.
"It would have to be something pretty extraordinary here to overturn the verdict and result in a mistrial or a new trial," said Goodin. "Again, this wouldn't throw out the case, it would just require a new trial."
Goodin said the standard for a new trial is very high. Defense attorneys need to prove that actual bias was displayed in the juror's social media posts.
Now, Cole will have to determine whether the alleged juror misconduct is serious enough to warrant more questioning of jury members to determine if anything tainted their deliberations or verdict.
Goodin said it's overall very difficult to win a new trial.
"It would need to be something very, very specific that shows some sort of preconceived notion or other bias, or that a juror did some sort of research outside of the jury room and shared that with other jurors," he said.
This isn't the first time the Rittgers legal team has won a new trial after alleging juror misconduct: They raised the same issue inthe murder trials of Ryan Widmer, who was accused of murdering his wife, Sarah, in the bathtub of their Hamilton Township home in 2008.
Widmer was convicted of the murder by a jury, but that conviction was overturned because jurors were found to have conducted their own investigations, including experiments on how long it would take a body to dry.
Widmer's second trial ended in a hung jury.
A jury convicted Widmer in a third trial in 2011, but his defense team again raised the issue of juror misconduct. This time they accused jurors of talking about the case, including one juror who allegedly told her friend on the second day of the trial that Widmer would “burn in hell,” according to media reports in 2011.
A Warren County judge conducted a hearing on the alleged misconduct and allowed defense attorneys to subpoena jurors and their friends and family to testify, but the judge ultimately denied the motions for a new trial and an acquittal.
Widmer is currently in prison serving a 15-year to life sentence.
You can read the full motion below: