12/16/04 — Fine, apology end juror's contempt case

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Fine, apology end juror's contempt case

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on December 16, 2004 1:58 PM

If Wayne C. Harrison could turn back the clock, he probably never would have said what he said.

His comments caused a judge to disband a jury that took four weeks to build, and it cost Harrison $500 and weeks of sleepless nights.

Harrison, of Pikeville, was a prospective juror for the murder trial of Eric Lane in Wayne County Superior Court. Lane is charged with raping and murdering a 5-year-old girl.

The jury was disbanded and the trial delayed, because the judge felt that Harrison's comments to jurors had hurt Lane's chances of getting a fair trial. The judge then charged Harrison, who is 71, with violating his orders.

On Wednesday, Harrison said he was very sorry for what had happened, and the judge and even the prosecuting attorney believed him.

"I try not to be a bad person," Harrison told the judge during his hearing in Wayne County Superior Court. "I haven't done too many terrible things in my life. I'm very sorry.

"If I had to do it again, I would never do it."

He said he had never been in trouble and had only two speeding tickets, but the contempt hearing had caused him to lose sleep over the last three weeks.

When it came time to sentence Harrison in Wayne County Superior Court neither the judge nor the prosecuting attorney felt that he deserved to go to jail.

But they did think that his violation of a judge's order should not go unpunished. So he was fined $500, the maximum amount.

He could have been sentenced up to 30 days in prison.

Harrison was also ordered by Judge Kenneth Crow of New Bern to write a letter of apology to the community and the other jurors, because his actions caused great expense to the taxpayers and disrupted a trial.

News-Argus Editor Mike Rouse said the letter would probably would be newsworthy.

Gary Kornegay of Indian Springs, who was a prospective juror in the Lane trial, testified that there had been discussion in the jury room.

He said Harrison believed Lane deserved the death penalty. Another juror replied that life in prison would be enough.

Kornegay had testified that Harrison said that if Lane got life, the state would have to feed him. But the other man said, according to Kornegay, that Lane would have a long time to consider what he had done if he got a life sentence. The other juror was not identified.

Judge Crow noted that other jurors also may have made prejudicial comments. But he said the remarks could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Harrison got into trouble Nov. 4, when the presiding judge in the Lane trial, D. Jack Hooks, stopped jury selection. The judge had heard a prospective juror say she had overheard comments in the jury pool room about a possible sentence. Hooks interviewed the members of the jury panel and the seated jurors. Another said she had heard similar remarks.

Harrison denied making the comments. But Hooks ordered Harrison to show why he should not be held in contempt for violating the judge's order not to discuss the case.

On Wednesday, Judge Crow ruled that Harrison had willfully violated Hooks' instructions and was clearly in contempt of court because his actions had interrupted the trial at an "enormous" cost to the taxpayers. Crow noted that three prosecutors, two defense lawyers, a judge, a court clerk, a court reporter, several bailiffs and many jurors were paid for their work during the four-week jury selection.

After being notified of Crow's decision Wednesday night, Judge Hooks, who charged Harrison, said from his home in Whiteville that Crow "is a fine judge. He did what he thought was right, but it's not appropriate for me to comment" about the decision.

Defense lawyer Will Bland said his client was very sorry and added that there was evidence of other conversations among jurors.

Special prosecutor Don Strickland said he took no personal satisfaction in Harrison's case. But jury service, he said, was second only in importance to military service in wartime.

"This kind of conduct should not be condoned," Strickland said. "He should be severely reprimanded and pay the money."

District Attorney Branny Vickory said Harrison had lived "an exemplary life" and did not deserve jail.

Judge Crow said that if the Lane case had been a drug trial, then the juror would have been sent home and a new jury picked. But because of the public scrutiny of a high-profile murder trial, Harrison "picked the wrong case at the wrong time and said the wrong thing."

Crow said Judge Hooks did the right thing in disbanding the jury and rescheduling a trial. If Lane had been convicted, Crow said, the case "would've come back on a silver platter" on appeal. "The expense we think is large now would have been compounded exponentially."

Crow also said he had learned something. Because of this trial, he also will caution juries at every break not to discuss the cases.