Courtroom comment leads circuit judge to declare mistrial

Friday, June 3, 2005

Circuit Judge Benjamin Lewis declared a mistrial Wednesday in the trial of an accused rapist after a prospective juror blurted out an answer to a prosecutor's question that made it impossible for the defendant to receive a fair trial.

"He [the prospective juror] was being candid and said it [what he said] in good faith. He wasn't trying to cause any trouble," Lewis said Thursday.

The incident happened during jury selection in the trial of Fred L. Harris, 51, Cape Girardeau. Harris was on trial on the charge of forcibly raping a young girl on May 28, 2004.

Lewis said the assistant prosecutor asked the prospective jurors if anyone knew the defendant. A juror raised his hand and said he had worked with him. When Hunter asked the juror if there was anything about his knowledge of the defendant "that would prejudice you in this case" the juror responded.

What he said sent nervous ripples of laughter through the courthouse said one witness. Lewis said the juror's answer effectively prejudiced the entire jury pool.

"It was a statement that would have made it impossible for him [Harris] to have gotten a fair trial and would have made it likely if appealed that any conviction would be reversed," Lewis said.

Lewis declined to divulge what the juror said because he did not want to taint the next juror pool. Although the incident was highly unusual, Lewis said, it "does happen."

A new trial for Harris was scheduled for June 16.

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