NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York state appeals court on Tuesday threw out the April 2014 conviction of a man in Manhattan’s East Harlem section for killing his girlfriend, because a juror failed to disclose she had applied for a prosecutor’s job in the office handling the case.
The Appellate Division in Manhattan ruled 5-0 that Equan Southall’s second-degree murder conviction and prison sentence of 23 years to life for the August 2011 killing of Camila Guzman must be vacated, citing the juror’s “implied bias” in favor of the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
Unbeknownst to lawyers on both sides, the juror, then in private practice, had applied for a job as an assistant district attorney two days before being sworn in as a juror, but said at the time she could be fair and impartial.
She later won the job, began working for Vance in September 2014, and remains an assistant district attorney in his office’s trial division. Her name was not disclosed in Tuesday’s decision.
A spokeswoman for Vance said his office was reviewing the decision and may appeal. John Vang, a lawyer for Southall, said he was pleased with the decision.
Writing for the appeals court, Justice Peter Tom said the juror did not lie when being questioned as a prospective juror, but should have known to disclose her job application, especially given her prior criminal law experience.
He said her failure deprived Southall of his right to 12 impartial jurors and created an appearance of impropriety that could erode public confidence in the criminal justice system.
“Even if the juror was sincerely convinced that she would be a fair juror, it was problematic for her to be one of the triers of fact in an action brought by her prospective employer,” Tom wrote.
According to the decision, Southall had confessed to the strangling and stabbing death of Guzman. But his trial lawyers said he had suffered from an extreme emotional disturbance that would reduce the conviction to first degree manslaughter.
Tom said the verdict was “not against the weight of the evidence,” and that a new trial rather than a dismissal of the indictment was appropriate.
The case is People v Southall, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, 1st Department, No. 4123/11.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown