Possible juror misconduct in case against Petersburg officer - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

Possible juror misconduct in case against Petersburg officer

By Nicole Bell - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT) – A multi-million dollar judgment against a Petersburg police officer could be thrown out. The civil case stems from a police pursuit that left two people dead and another seriously injured. The attorney for that officer says he plans on asking a judge for a mistrial.

There are now questions surrounding the qualification of some of the jurors in the case -- questions that were raised after the jury awarded the plaintiffs just over two million dollars.

 The police pursuit happened July 22, 2008. Petersburg police responded to a shoplifting complaint at a 7-11 store. The officer who responded to the call followed a car carrying three teenagers. There was a chase. It ended when the teens wrecked. Two of the teens died - another was seriously injured. Turns out, no one in the car had shoplifted from that store.

The family of Donte Howlett, who died, and the family 16-year-old Jenell Burgess, who was injured, filed a civil suit against the responding police officer, Christopher Womack. On Friday, a jury found Womack guilty of gross negligence. Jurors awarded the plaintiffs just over two million dollars, total. After that judgment was handed down the defense attorney for Womack raised questions about the eligibility of some of the jurors.

Sources say, one juror who, claimed under oath, to be a Petersburg resident actually lives in Chesterfield. Two other jurors allegedly told the court they had no criminal charges pending. Now, there are questions surrounding the honesty behind those responses.

NBC 12 legal analyst Steve Benjamin has no inside knowledge of the case but offers insight on juror misconduct.

"Jurors are told when they're questioned that they're under oath and so any false information they give if they're asked a direct question is perjury," said Benjamin.

Benjamin says if a juror gives false information that could result in a new trial.

"It's essential jurors are honest so everyone involved in the case has a fair trial," said Benjamin.

At this point it's unclear when or how Womack's attorney found out there could be juror misconduct. Womack's attorney, John Conrad, says he will file a motion for a mistrial on or before September 27. Womack is still employed as an officer with Petersburg Police Department.

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