FALL RIVER, Mass. – Two jurors determining the fate of Aaron Hernandez told Bristol County Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh that a Boston television station SUV was present at their parking lot Wednesday night and approached jury vehicles, an act that violates Massachusetts’ law.
Both jurors – one male, one female – remained on the jury, which entered its second full day of deliberations on whether Hernandez murdered Odin Lloyd in the early morning hours of June 17, 2013.
Hernandez is a former star player for the New England Patriots and as such the case has attracted major media attention.
"It was one person in the vehicle; it was in the parking lot,” Garsh explained later of a van she identified as belonging to WHDH-TV, the NBC affiliate in Boston. "It slowed down as jurors were pulling out. It was looking at the jurors [in a way] the jurors deemed inappropriate."
Jurors park or get dropped off at a parking lot away from the Fall River Justice Center and then are transported to the courthouse in a van. It is an effort to protect them from outside influences whether it's the media, families on either side of the trial or the general public following the case.
There is no reason for a media member to be at that location.
Garsh held individual meetings with the two jurors, but had white noise piped through the courtroom so the public and media could not hear. The male juror brought a cell phone with him. Garsh later explained he had taken a photograph of the television SUV’s license plate.
According to a court transcript, the juror was walking to his truck when the SUV stopped near him and the driver inside looked at him, then pulled away only to circle around the block.
"I thought it was very strange that I saw the same vehicle go up, come back, and then I saw him again on the other side [of the parking lot]," the juror explained to Garsh. "You could clearly see it stopped."
Each juror was brought in a second time later in the morning and again questioned by Garsh, the attorneys and Hernandez.
Garsh asked both jurors if they were confident that what happened would have any effect on their ability to continue as a juror. Both responded no.
Garsh demanded a hearing at 12:15 p.m. ET, where either the driver of the vehicle appears before her under oath or someone from WHDH management who will assert as to why the driver acted as he did.
"If he wishes to assert his Fifth Amendment rights then at a minimum I need someone from the company to say they conducted an investigation that if any editor or producer directed that person," Garsh said.
In a statement read at the top of their noon newscast, WHDH denied it approached, spoke to or photographed any jurors.
If no one from the organization comes before the court, she will ban the entire organization from entering the courthouse here to cover the trial. Presumably she would do the same if the order came from management.
The individual driver has already been banned, Garsh said, from entering the courthouse or working from a parking spot at the courthouse assigned to the station.
Garsh can’t prevent WHDH from using the public video feed from the court or its reporters from working on the sidewalk around the courthouse.
Garsh said that depending on how the jurors reacted, it could have caused either or both of them to be excused from the jury. The current jury of seven women and five men also has three alternates. Losing two jurors could have left this lengthy case that has stretched across 10 weeks, with enormous resources devoted to it, in jeopardy of a mistrial.
"It would have left us with one alternate fairly early in the deliberation," Garsh scolded.
An alternate or alternates would have replaced either or both of the current jurors had they been deemed unfit to continue. That, however, would have required deliberations to start all over again with the full new panel. The jury had already put in about eight-and-a-half hours of work since getting the case Tuesday afternoon.
Garsh questioned WHDH reporter Bryon Barnett, who was in court Thursday morning but was not in the SUV, a silver Ford Explorer, at the time of the incident. She instructed him to find out what happened and explain it to her later. She threatened to ban WHDH from covering the trial going forward.
"This is a very serious matter," Garsh said. "So I’ll give you the opportunity to do some investigation."
Hernandez spun his chair around and watched intently as Barnett tried to give as much of an explanation as he could.
Garsh said it is a felony in Massachusetts to question or harass a juror at any time during the trial and reminded the assembled media of the policies.
"To all of you," Garsh said to the media, "you cannot approach, question, harass [or] follow any juror."
The jury was sent back to deliberate at 9:40 a.m. ET.
Hernandez, 25, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole for what prosecutors argue was orchestrating the shooting death of Lloyd, a 27-year-old landscaper from Boston.