Every juror knows the cardinal rule: Don't discuss the case with anyone until deliberations.
Now one juror has put a Fresno County Superior Court murder verdict in question by violating the rule, at least in spirit, a defense attorney says. And that juror just happens to be someone who knows the rule very well -- a judge in the same courthouse.
Attorney David Mugridge said Thursday he plans to seek a new trial for convicted killer Ruben Ortiz because Judge James Oppliger, while serving as a citizen in the jury box, sent four e-mails to fellow judges about the trial.
Here I am, livin' the dream, jury duty with Mugridge and Jenkins!" Oppliger said in a light-hearted e-mail sent to 22 judges on March 16, soon after the case began.
Nearly a month later, Oppliger -- who was selected jury foreman -- and 11 others on the panel voted unanimously to convict Ortiz in Fresno County Superior Court of second-degree murder in the shooting death of 15-year-old Chrisna Long. egal observers say it's not clear that Oppliger did anything wrong. Jurors are allowed to tell others they are assigned to a trial. But the judge should have known better than to do something that could raise a possible objection, they say.
Mugridge said Thursday he doesn't know whether Oppliger's e-mails were juror misconduct, but he plans to investigate. When a juror sends e-mails to other people -- especially to other judges, including the judge overseeing the case -- "you run the risk of appearing inappropriate," he said.
And he said Judge Arlan Harrell, who presided over the Ortiz trial, might have committed judicial error for failing to mention the e-mails until Thursday during a court hearing.
Oppliger, who spent Thursday back on the bench presiding over other criminal cases, did not respond to interview requests.
Oppliger sent four e-mails to 22 judges, including Harrell, on March 15 (the day testimony began), March 16, April 7, and on Monday -- the day the jury announced its verdict against Ortiz, 19, of Fresno.
During Thursday's hearing, Mugridge told Harrell that Oppliger's reference to "living a dream" appeared to be negative and could show the judge's animosity toward him and his client. Mugridge said it appeared Oppliger was mocking him.
But Harrell said he didn't see any prejudice in the statement because Oppliger had mentioned both lawyers.
The other e-mails weren't discussed in court, but copies of the e-mails, provided by the court, appears to show Oppliger having fun being on the panel. On the day of the verdict, Oppliger wrote: "Does anyone have the 'top ten reasons that you know you have been on a jury to [sic] long when:' ''
In every trial, jurors are admonished not to talk about the case until deliberations.
Harrell said during Thursday's hearing that he admonished the jury not to talk about the case. But he said he doesn't think Oppliger violated his order. He said his review of the e-mails shows that Oppliger was not talking about evidence in the trial.
Fresno attorney Michael Idiart, who is not connected to the Ortiz case, said Oppliger's e-mails do not appear to constitute jury misconduct because he did not discuss the evidence. "Jurors have the right to tell their friends they are on a trial," he said.
Idiart also said he doesn't know whether Harrell committed judicial error, because it's not clear when the judge read Oppliger's e-mails.
But Idiart conceded Oppliger should know better. "Being a judge, he should have been more cautious," Idiart said.
Fresno attorney Marc Kapetan -- who also was not involved in the case -- said Oppliger's e-mails are troubling, because as a judge, Oppliger frequently admonishes jurors not to talk about a case.
"I believe it undermines the public's confidence in the court system," Kapetan said. But he would not go as far as to say Oppliger did anything wrong.
Mugridge said he would like to speak to Oppliger before he writes his motion for a new trial. "Perhaps what he did is easily explained," he said.Read the full story at the Fresno Bee.