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Shouting at jurors didn’t support conspiracy charge

 

A Watauga County man who loudly confronted jurors as they left the courtroom after convicting his twin brother of assaulting a police officer shouldn’t have been convicted of conspiracy to intimidate a juror, a narrowly divided North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled, overturning a decision by an also-divided Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court declined to weigh in, however, on the man’s argument that the state’s law against juror intimidation violates the First Amendment.

Patrick Mylett and his brother, Dan, were involved in an altercation which led to Dan being charged with assault on a government official. A jury convicted Dan of the offense in March 2016. As jurors exited the courtroom, the brothers and their mother and Dan’s girlfriend all berated them over the verdict; some jurors testified that they were screamed and shouted at. Patrick was charged with six counts of harassment of a juror and one count of conspiracy to commit harassment of a juror. He was acquitted of the harassment charges but convicted of the conspiracy charge.

Mylett appealed, and in 2018 a divided Court of Appeals panel affirmed, rejecting his argument that the juror intimidation statute violated the First Amendment and finding that jurors could infer the existence of a conspiracy based on the Mylett clan’s “parallel conduct” toward the jurors in the courthouse lobby. Chief Judge Linda McGee dissented, arguing that in the absence of any evidence of a true threat toward jurors, the conduct was protected by the First Amendment.

Justice Anita Earls, writing for a 4-3 majority, declined to address the constitutional issue, finding that prosecutors hadn’t presented enough evidence to reasonably infer the existence of any agreement to threaten or intimidate a juror. Although there was substantial evidence of the family’s communications toward the jurors, the evidence was “almost entirely devoid” of any interactions between the family members from which the formation of any agreement could be inferred.

The majority rejected the state’s argument that the conviction could nevertheless be sustained based on a theory of parallel conduct. Although it agreed with the theory in principle, the majority said the inference would be much stronger if the conduct at issue had been more synchronized or clearly in furtherance of a crime. Earls said that the family’s conduct as they waited in the lobby “was hardly the work of a master plan.”

“Put simply, this is not a situation like a drug transaction or a bank robbery, where it is evident that an unlawful act has occurred, and where the degree of coordination associated with those unlawful acts renders an inference of ‘mutual, implied understanding’ between the participants far more reasonable,” Earls wrote.

Justice Sam Ervin, joined by Justices Mark Davis and Paul Newby, dissented from the court’s ruling, arguing that a reasonable juror could have easily found that there was indeed a mutual, implied understanding between the family members given their close affinity, their physical proximity to one another as they accosted jurors, and the fact that they lobbed largely similar barbs at the jurors.

Earls disagreed with the dissenters’ assertion that the majority’s decision implied that proof that alleged conspirators had committed a crime would be necessary to prove a conspiracy. Rather, Earls wrote, if the evidence leaves open a question of whether an unlawful act has even been committed, that would tend to lessen the reasonableness of any inference that the defendants had an agreement to commit an unlawful act.

Rob Heroy of Goodman, Carr, Laughrun & Greene in Charlotte represented Mylett. Heroy said that his side had put a lot of effort into the constitutional issue, but he understood the court’s decision to decide the case on narrower grounds, and that the court’s rationale ultimately provided the best possible result for his client.

“That’s where a lot of our focus was, and I know that there were a lot of fun First Amendment issues that were at play there, but at the end of the day, as far as Mr. Mylett is concerned, he’s got a North Carolina Supreme Court decision saying that there was no evidence to support the charge that he was involved in any conspiracy to intimidate a juror,” Heroy said. “As far as what’s best for the client, that’s much better than constitutional grounds or some other grounds.”

Heroy said that because of the way the court decided the case, the ruling would likely have little precedential value for cases involving intimidation of jurors specifically, but it could prove significant for a wider universe of cases involving proof of a conspiracy more generally.

The 31-page decision is State v. Mylett (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-049-20). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan


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