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Erroneous Answers on Juror Questionnaire No Basis for New Trial for Former Newark Mayor


February 14, 2013

The Third Circuit has upheld a district court’s denial of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James’ request for a new trial on fraud charges.  United States v. James, 2013 U.S. App. Lexis 2901 (3d Cir. February 12, 2013)

 Following a trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Mr. James was convicted of fraud in connection with transactions in which he steered sales of city-owned real estate to an individual with whom he had a romantic relationship.  Mr. James later filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds that a juror had provided false answers to questions during the jury selection process.  The juror in question had answered “no” to questions asking him if:  1) you personally know or have any family members or close friends who know either of the defendants; 2) you or any member of your immediate family ever had any business or other dealings with the City of Newark and 3) you, any member of your immediate family or close friend have ever been involved with a political campaign in opposition to or in support of Sharpe James.  However, according to Mr. James, the juror’s mother and stepfather were employed by the City of Newark and the stepfather had contributed to Mr. James’ campaign and attended fundraisers for him.

...the court stated that Mr. James had not presented clear, strong, substantial and incontrovertible evidence that the answers were dishonest, as opposed to mistaken, though honest. 

The Third Circuit stated that in order to obtain a new trial for false juror testimony, Mr. James had to show that:  1) the juror failed to answer a material question honestly during jury selection and 2) a correct response would have provided a valid basis for having the juror excluded from the trial.  With respect to the first prong, the court stated that Mr. James had not presented clear, strong, substantial and incontrovertible evidence that the answers were dishonest, as opposed to mistaken, though honest.  In this regard, the court noted that:  1) simply because the juror’s stepfather made donations to Mr. James’ campaign and attended his fundraisers didn’t mean that the stepfather personally knew Mr. James; 2) the phrase “business or other dealings” didn’t necessarily include employment; 3) Mr. James had failed to establish that the juror was aware of his stepfather’s political activities and 4) even if the juror did know about his stepfather’s activities, he could have reasonably interpreted the phrase “involved with a political campaign” to involve something  more than donating money and attending fundraisers. 

The Court went on to state that even if the answers were dishonest, honest answers would not have provided a valid basis for preventing the juror from participating in the trial.  The court rejected Mr. James’ argument that the juror was more inclined to convict him to avoid reprisals against his mother and stepfather and to enhance their job security as nothing more than speculation. Moreover, the fact that the stepfather donated to Mr. James’ campaign and attended his fundraisers indicated a bias in favor of, rather than against, Mr. James.

In light of the above, the Third Circuit held that the trial court had not erred in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on Mr. James’ claims and in denying his motion for a new trial.

A complete copy of the opinion can be found here: http://www.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/114116np.pdf