Article courtesy of the Modesto bee
An investigator with the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office faces a contempt of court charge on accusations of speaking to an alternate juror during deliberations in a trial.
Investigator Steve Jacobson is charged with contempt of court in connection with improper contact he had with the alternate juror, according to a filed document signed by Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden. The judge has denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charge and scheduled an evidentiary hearing for Friday.
The document says improper conduct occurred during the trial for Aleo John Pontillo, a Modesto bail bondsman acquitted of kidnapping for extortion and bail-forfeiture fraud charges Dec. 10. After an investigation that went on for several years, a five-month trial and two days of deliberations, the jury returned with not guilty verdicts.
“THE (NOT GUILTY) VERDICT RENDERED THE ISSUE MOOT, AND THE ALTERNATE (JUROR) WAS NEVER SEATED.”
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris
District Attorney Birgit Fladager said there was no wrongdoing on the part of Jacobson, who still works for her office. He was one of the investigators in the Pontillo case.
“He is a fine and dedicated criminal investigator,” Fladager said. “He most certainly did not have any improper contact with an alternate juror at any point in the proceedings.”
Frank Carson, Pontillo’s attorney, has filed court documents in support of the contempt charge against Jacobson. He also argues that Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris should face the same charge, claiming the prosecutor was part of an effort to corrupt the jury.
“I have no doubt that if I or my investigator had done the same thing to jury members in the same situation, we would have been arrested immediately, restricted from the courthouse and prosecuted on felony charges by the District Attorney’s Office to the fullest extent of the law,” Carson wrote in his declaration to the court.
Michael Rains, Jacobson’s attorney, argues that nothing legally or factually sufficient has been presented to the court to support a contempt charge against his client.
Rains says allegations were made that one of Pontillo’s employees had photographed the alternate juror in the courthouse hallway, so the investigator asked the juror if she had been photographed. He says his client didn’t approach the alternate juror until after the jury had gone into deliberations.
“Investigator Jacobson waited until the juror in question was separated (from other jurors), and he apparently believed she was excused before he conducted what he thought was a legitimate inquiry into a matter not related to the trial,” Rains wrote in his motion to dismiss the contempt charge.
“JUST BECAUSE THE ATTEMPT TO CORRUPT THE JURY DID NOT SUCCEED IN WINNING A CONVICTION DOESN’T MAKE IT ANY LESS OF A SERIOUS CRIME.”
Defense Attorney Frank Carson
Judge Scott Steffen handled the Pontillo trial and heard arguments from Harris and Carson over the claims of improper conduct about a month after the verdict was announced.
But it was McFadden who issued the contempt charge, and all hearings concerning the matter will be held in her courtroom. She will decide whether there is enough evidence to support the charge, which could result in penalties including jail time, community service and a fine.
Judge Steffen has filed a declaration listing what he knows about the claims of improper conduct by Jacobson. At a Jan. 8 hearing, Carson said the investigator spoke to jurors during deliberations, asking them whether they were bothered by Pontillo’s family and friends taking their photographs.
Harris told the judge that Mark Davis, who was one of Pontillo’s co-defendants and still faces fraud charges, told the bailiff that Pontillo’s employee was photographing jurors. The bailiff spoke to one of Pontillo’s relatives, who said it was her who was being photographed in the hallway.
The prosecutor told the judge that Jacobson subsequently spoke with the alternate juror, who said someone had photographed her, and then there was a discussion about why her photo was taken, which was brought to the bailiff’s attention. Harris also said Jacobson spoke to the alternate juror after the jury started deliberating.
Judge Steffen wrote in his declaration that none of this was brought to his attention before the verdict was reached Dec. 10, or before the Jan. 8 hearing. The judge said it’s not clear when Jacobson spoke to the alternate juror, but it appears the conversation occurred while the jury was deliberating and before the alternate jurors were discharged from the trial.
The alternate jurors were still under orders not to discuss the case with anyone at that point, because they could have replaced one of the 12 deliberating jurors, according to the judge’s declaration. The judge’s account was the basis for the contempt charge.
In his declaration, the judge included a portion of the prosecutor’s written response to the accusations against Jacobson. Harris wrote that, on Dec. 9, Jacobson told him that he had spoken with the alternate juror to ask if she had been photographed. The jury had already started their deliberations.
“I told Investigator Jacobson not to talk to anyone anymore about the issue until after the jury was done,” Harris wrote in his response. “I also explained that if the alternate had to be seated (on the jury) we would tell the court.”
The prosecutor said he believed they could wait before informing the court, since the alternate jurors had already been separated from the deliberating jury. He said there was never any attempt by Jacobson to tamper with the jury as Pontillo’s attorney claims.
Carson argued that Jacobson’s actions were an effort to turn the jury against Pontillo and cause them to fear his client as a bad or dangerous man. He says the allegation that one of Pontillo’s supporters photographed jurors is false.