Fresno jury's mistake on verdict forms frees career criminal

The Fresno BeeJune 11, 2014 

Judge W. Kent Hamlin presides over a Fresno Superior Court case in 2012.

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A career Fresno criminal was cleared of burglary charges Wednesday after a jury mistakenly signed a not-guilty verdict form.

"I can't believe it," Judge W. Kent Hamlin said in Fresno County Superior Court after he ordered defendant Bobby Lee Pearson to be set free from jail because the not-guilty verdict had been put on the record.

RELATED: Career criminal freed after jury's mistake dead after northwest Fresno attack After it was too late, jurors told Hamlin they were hung on the charges against Pearson. If the jury had announced it was deadlocked, the judge could have declared a mistrial and the prosecution could have retried Pearson.

Instead, a flabbergasted Hamlin told the jury, "I can't change it because double jeopardy has already attached. This has never happened to me in more than 100 jury trials that I have done."

To find out what happened, Hamlin re-read the jury instructions to the panel. The instructions say all 12 jurors must be unanimous to reach a verdict -- either guilty or not guilty. But the jury told the judge they were confused by the verdict forms. One form says guilty. The other form says not guilty.

A juror told Hamlin there wasn't a form to sign to say they were deadlocked.

Which is where the jurors were: split 8-4 in favor of finding Pearson guilty.

Hamlin had no choice but to thank the jury and excuse them.

Once jurors left the courtroom, defense attorney Linden Lindahl told Hamlin to take a deep breath. Hamlin promised to "chill out."

Afterward, Lindahl said he was surprised by the jury's confusion because "Hamlin did everything by the book," carefully explaining the law and answering the panel's questions. "There was nothing out of the ordinary," Lindahl said.

Police say Pearson and co-defendants Terrel Minnieweather and another person burglarized an apartment near Maple and Herndon avenues in May last year, stealing a video system and gun. The homeowner caught the three intruders in the act and wrestled with one of them, but had trouble identifying them, said Lindahl, who defended Minnieweather.

Prior to trial, the third suspect took a plea deal, leaving Pearson, 37, and Minnieweather, 31, to face a jury. Testimony lasted two weeks.

The jury came back with its verdict right before lunch Wednesday, finding Minnieweather guilty of residential burglary and grand theft, but Pearson not guilty of the charges. When Hamlin asked the jury if that was indeed their verdict on the charges against Pearson, all 12 nodded yes.

Because prosecutor Billy Terrance had charged the two defendants with street terrorism, Hamlin asked the jury to return after lunch for a potential second phase of the trial to determine whether the defendants acted in concert for the benefit of a street gang. Over lunch one of the jurors informed court staff that he voted to find Pearson guilty, Lindahl said.

The juror's admission prompted the judge to start the afternoon proceedings with his inquiry about the confusion. The prosecution then asked the judge to dismiss the street terrorism charges against both Pearson and Minnieweather, and Hamlin agreed.

Court records say Minnieweather has two prior convictions for burglary and a conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm. He faces as much as 30 years to life when he is sentenced on July 10.

Pearson has felony convictions for corporal injury to a co-inhabitant, possession of a firearm by a felon, carrying a loaded firearm in a vehicle and carrying a concealed weapon, court records show.

Minnieweather was in trouble because he had told police where to find the stolen gun.

But Lindahl said jurors pointed out discrepancies in the evidence. The attorney talked to jurors after they were excused.

For instance, Lindahl said, after the defendants were arrested, police found a mask and gloves in a trash can, but the victim testified that he saw the faces of the intruders and they weren't wearing gloves.

The victim, as well as a police detective, also had trouble identifying Pearson, Lindahl said.

Though no fingerprints were found in the victim's home, police found footprints, but they never matched the evidence to the defendants' shoes. "The jury wanted to know why this wasn't done," Lindahl said.

In addition, the jury was confused about a cell phone that was part of the evidence. Police dusted it for fingerprints, but never turned it on to find out who owned it, Lindahl said.

The jury was made up of eight women and four men.

"I call it a June jury," Lindahl said, while pointing out that many of them appeared to be young college students who delayed their jury service until the summer when school is out. "I guess they see things differently than our normal jurors," he said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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