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Police Blotter: MySpace profile sets convicted felon free

Man convicted of molesting two girls gets new trial after appeals court agrees jurors shouldn't have perused MySpace for one girl's profile.

Police Blotter is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: West Virginia man, who was convicted of sex abuse of two minors, appeals the verdict, saying jurors in his case should not have been hunting for an alleged victim's MySpace.com profile.

When: Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia rules on November 21.

Outcome: Defendant's conviction is reversed, and a new trial is granted.

What happened, according to court documents:
Danny Cecil was convicted last year of abusing two teenage girls and sentenced to up to 40 years in prison. Now he's free.

The story starts in mid-2005, when a 13-year-old girl referred to as KJ, a friend of Cecil's daughter, spent the night. KJ said Cecil woke her up while she was sleeping by fondling her and then left the room when she rolled over. KJ's mother alerted the police.

Another girl, referred to as SD, subsequently came forward and reported a similar experience.

A jury returned a verdict of guilty on three of the four counts of felony sexual abuse. Cecil was sentenced to 10 to 20 years on one count, with a consecutive term of 10 to 20 years on another.

What makes this case relevant to Police Blotter is that at least two jurors had been perusing MySpace.com. (Compare this with a Police Blotter installment from earlier this month about a juror who blogged during the trial.)

During the trial, the two jurors ended up looking for the home page of KJ, one of the alleged victims, whose mother had testified that she was withdrawn and not interested in older males.

The fact that KJ had a MySpace profile had come up during testimony. KJ had posted a comment on her page saying "remember my face because I'm going to be famous someday" and, according to the defense, used the account to communicate with older boys.

It's a little unclear exactly what these two jurors saw, especially since KJ's Web site was apparently restricted or removed before the trial began. In addition, the court indicated that the two jurors-turned-investigators weren't able to find anything relevant.

What the appeals court also found troubling is that a third unnamed juror, an employee of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, claimed that the jury should lend more credence to the girls' testimony than the defendant's.

Saying it had "no choice" but to throw out Cecil's conviction, the appeals court granted him a new trial that will likely take place in the spring. Until then, he's free on bond and living just a few houses away from one of the girls he's accused of molesting.

Excerpts from the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia's opinion:
We do not take lightly our responsibility in reviewing a verdict that is returned by a jury, one of whose members may have either prematurely reached a decision based on information not presented during the trial, or introduced into the jury room extrinsic information upon which other jurors may have based their decision. Any challenge to the lack of the impartiality of a jury assaults the very heart of due process.

This court has held that, "Where the record of a criminal trial shows that the cumulative effect of numerous errors committed during the trial prevented the defendant from receiving a fair trial, his conviction should be set aside, even though any one of such errors standing alone would be harmless error." Having carefully reviewed the record, we conclude that the cumulative effect of each of the instances of juror misconduct discussed above made it impossible for the appellant to receive a fair trial.

We are mindful that the independent investigation conducted by two of the jurors did not bear fruit, which arguably lessens the prejudicial effect, but notwithstanding that fact, the mere fact that members of a jury in a serious felony case conducted any extrajudicial investigation on their own is gross juror misconduct which simply cannot be permitted. Without meaningful censure, failure to properly punish such behavior would encourage or allow its repetition. Given the independent investigation by these jurors and the fact that another juror advised that the alleged victims' testimony should be given more weight than that of the appellant contrary to the judge's instructions and our law, we have no choice but to vacate the appellant's convictions.