FRESNO, Calif. — A burglary defendant who won his freedom because of a jury’s mistake lost his life a few hours later when he was stabbed to death in a fight.
The jury in the trial of Bobby Lee Pearson, 37, mistakenly signed a not-guilty form Wednesday, and the flabbergasted judge said he had no choice but to order him to be released from jail because the verdict had already been put on the record.
It was too late when the judge finally learned that the jury was unable to reach a verdict, stalling on an 8-4 vote in favor of guilt. Prosecutors might have had an opportunity to retry Pearson, but by then, changing the verdict form would have exposed Pearson to double jeopardy.
After being released from jail, Pearson went to the home of his sister, Lasandra Jackson, to get some clothing and belongings. Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said Pearson apparently got into a fight with his sister’s boyfriend, 35-year-old Willie Gray.
The two had a history of problems, said Dyer, adding that investigators believe Gray killed Pearson, who was found dead in the street with a chest wound from a knife or gun and a cut on his stomach. Investigators found a steak knife near the body, Dyer said.
Gray was arrested and treated for injuries to his hands before being booked on suspicion of murder, said Dyer, adding that Pearson might still be alive if it weren’t for the jury’s “mishap.” Pearson had a long criminal past, Dyer said.
William Terrence, who prosecuted the case, told The Associated Press that despite the bizarre chain of events that led to Pearson’s release, the man he tried sending to prison didn’t deserve to die that way.
“There’s not a death penalty on a burglary,” Terrence said. “I’m not sitting here thinking he got what he deserved.”
Terrence said he is still trying to understand the jury’s confusion. He said he explained the verdict forms in closing arguments, and so did the judge.
“Apparently, the message wasn’t quite received,” Terrence said.
In a deadlock, jurors should have sent a note to the judge.
Pearson and two co-defendants were accused of burglarizing an apartment last year and stealing a video system and a gun. The homeowner allegedly caught the intruders and wrestled with one of them.
Jurors returned a guilty verdict against Pearson’s co-defendant, Terrel Minnieweather and the mistaken not-guilty verdict against Pearson before lunch Wednesday.
Terrence said Hamlin polled each juror individually to verify Minnieweather’s guilty verdict. Turning to Pearson’s case, the judge asked the jurors as a group if that was its not-guilty verdict in Pearson’s case.
“No one stood up and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That’s not my verdict,‘” Terrence said. “They nodded along.”
Terrence said that it wasn’t a mistake to poll the jury as a group. The evidence against Pearson wasn’t as strong, and Terrence said he respected the jury’s apparent not-guilty decision.
The jurors were then asked to return after lunch for a potential second phase of the trial. The confusion over the verdict came to light during lunch, when one juror told court staff that he had voted to find Pearson guilty.
Jurors said they were confused by the forms, one of which was for a guilty verdict and the other for a not guilty verdict. One juror said there was no form they could sign to indicate a deadlock.
“It is bizarre,” said Eugene Hyman, who retired from the Santa Clara County Superior Court after serving for 20 years on the bench. “But I can’t find fault with anyone.”
Hyman, who had no involvement in Pearson’s case, said during trials, he would ask each juror whether the verdict read by the clerk was indeed their verdict. He said there’s nothing wrong with polling jurors en masse.
Hyman said the judge had no choice but to acquit Pearson if Hamlin ordered the not guilty verdict “recorded” immediately after the jurors nodded in agreement with the verdict.
Judges are required to poll jurors after every verdict is read in criminal cases, Hyman said.