By John Lyon
By John Lyon
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — A lawyer for a death-row inmate argued Thursday that her client’s capital murder conviction should be overturned because of multiple irregularities at his trial, including jurors who were tweeting and sleeping during the proceedings.
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments but did not immediately issue a ruling in an appeal by Erickson Dimas-Martinez, who was convicted by a Benton County jury of capital murder and aggravated robbery in the death of 17-year-old Derrick Jefferson. Dimas-Martinez was sentenced to death on the murder charge and to life in prison on the robbery charge.
Dimas-Martinez’s attorney, Janice Vaughn, told the justices Thursday that the trial judge should have dismissed a juror who transmitted messages via Twitter from the jury box and the deliberation room.
Circuit Judge David Clinger had not instructed jurors not to tweet but had said they were not to tweet anything about the case. Vaughn said the juror tweeted that he was reluctant to deal with the death penalty and tweeted “It’s over” from the deliberation room, before the jury announced it had reached a verdict.
“After even being brought in and questioned about it, he went back and twittered during the sentencing deliberations,” Vaughn said.
She argued that the juror’s disregard of Clinger’s instruction about tweeting raised questions about whether he disregarded other instructions, as well as raising questions about whether he was paying more attention to his tweeting than to the evidence.
Assistant Attorney General Eileen Harrison argued that the juror tweeted about his feelings but not about the substance of the case.
Justice Donald Corbin noted that the juror continued to tweet after Clinger questioned him.
“Is that not an indication that he was not following the instructions of the court, that he was not paying attention to what he was doing?” Corbin asked.
“The judge did not say, ‘Do not twitter under any circumstances,’” Harrison said.
“What if I was up here texting somebody while you’re talking to me? Would that not bother you?” Corbin asked.
Harrison said the juror tweeted three or four times, not constantly throughout the trial.
Justice Paul Danielson said the thought of jurors using devices with Internet access during a trial “bothers me.”
“Can’t you do research, can’t you look at news reports, can’t you do things on those electronic devices? And if a person is not following the court’s instructions regarding the use of them, how do we know they’re not using them in other ways that they shouldn’t be using them?” Danielson asked.
“The judge questioned the juror, and the juror denied getting any kind of outside information, and the judge found the juror to be credible,” Harrison said.
Vaughn argued that another juror should have been removed after he was caught with his eyes closed and possibly sleeping during the trial.
Harrison said Clinger asked the juror if he had missed anything, and the juror’s answer, “Not really,” satisfied the judge.
“We are talking about a lengthy trial. I mean, jurors are human beings,” Harrison said.
“How would a juror know what he missed if he’s asleep?” Danielson asked.
“Is the state’s position that you can sleep a little bit during a … case but not much?” asked Justice Robert Brown.
Corbin asked, “What if I told you, ‘I just woke up after a little nap for about five minutes. I didn’t hear a word you said for the last five minutes?’”
Harrison said it appeared that the juror heard “the vast majority of the evidence.”
She also said the juror was caught with his eyes closed while the state was presenting evidence. The state offered overwhelming evidence of Dimas-Martinez’s guilt, so one juror missing a few minutes of that evidence would not have affected the trial’s outcome, she said.
Vaughn argued that the conviction also should be overturned because Clinger told the jury that the case automatically would be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which would go over it with a fine-toothed comb. She said the comment may have given the jury the impression that it did not have to be extremely careful in deciding whether to impose the death penalty.
Harrison argued that Clinger’s comments were accurate and that his instructions to the jury during the sentencing phase made it clear that jurors were to take their responsibility seriously.