FARMINGTON — The state's highest court overturned a Franklin County jury's guilty verdict against a Lincoln man convicted of aggravated drunken driving — accomplice liability in an accident that left one man dead in 2007.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices issued a 5-2 decision on Tuesday that vacates the guilty verdict against Ryan A. Hurd, 25, and remands it back to the Franklin County Superior Court for entry of the original verdict of not guilty.
The case involved a situation that a prosecutor with two decades of experience said he had never encountered before.
According to testimony during the original trial, Hurd and two other men were highly intoxicated when they got into Hurd's car on Oct. 17, 2007, in Farmington to return to a Kingfield hotel where they were staying during a construction job. The car was going 98 miles an hour before it hit a utility pole on Route 27 that day in New Vineyard, according to testimony. Terry Richardson Jr., 34, of Dover-Foxcroft died in the accident and Chad Bernier, 30, of Medway and Hurd were seriously injured.
State prosecutors claimed Hurd was behind the wheel while Hurd's attorney, Richard Hartley argued that Richardson was driving.
The jury initially found Hurd not guilty of manslaughter and aggravated operating under the influence after a six-day trial in May 2009. Once the jury foreman read those two verdicts, family members of Hurd started crying. Justice Michaela Murphy discharged the jury after the outburst and they returned to the jury room. She then released Hurd from bail conditions.
Within a few minutes, a judicial marshal came out of the jury room and told Murphy that the jury needed to see her. The jury believed there was a third charge accomplice liability and hadn't given its verdict on that charge, the court learned. The court reconvened and the jury issued a guilty verdict on the aggravated OUI, accomplice liability charge. Murphy later denied Hurd's motion to reinstate the not guilty verdict and imposed sentence.
Hurd appealed the verdict to the state's Law Court. His sentence of two years with all but six months suspended, probation of two years, and mandatory license suspension of six years was stayed pending the appeal. Hartley argued earlier this year that the lower court erred in instructing the jury as to accomplice liability on the aggravated OUI charge and allowing the jury, after rendering a verdict of not guilty of the OUI charge and being discharged, to reconvene and, after further inquiry by the trial court, change its verdict to guilty. He also said the jury's second verdict violated Hurd's constitutional rights under the Double Jeopardy Clauses of both state and federal constitutions.
Franklin County Assistant District Attorney James Andrews argued in support of the guilty verdict that the federal rule of evidence does not preclude the jury from reporting its unanimous vote, taken, the state asserted, before the jury was discharged, on the theory of accomplice liability, according to Tuesday's decision. He also argued that the jury did not misunderstand the jury instructions and properly considered and voted upon both theories of liability for aggravated OUI prior to being discharged. He stated that case law from other jurisdictions, which address and dispose of the Double Jeopardy and other constitutional concerns, support the state's position.
Tuesday's decision concluded that the trial court erred when, after discharge of the jury, it inquired into the jury's deliberative process beyond establishing to the extent permitted under rules of evidence that the original verdict of not guilty on the count of aggravated OUI was not the product of outside influence or external juror misconduct.
“In this case, the jury rendered a verdict in open court that responded to both counts of the indictment, counsel did not request a poll or any further inquiry, the jurors then acknowledged the verdict as their verdict and were discharged without any overt indication that there was problem in the rendering of the verdict. The jurors' subsequent communications with the court establish that their concern over the verdict resulted from the jurors misunderstanding of the jury instructions and the alternate theories presented for liability on the one count of aggravated OUI, not from outside influences or external juror misconduct.”
Supreme Court justices Joseph Jabar and Warren Silver dissented in the decision.
Jabar wrote that he would have affirmed the verdict. He could not agree that the rules of evidence prohibits the jury from properly reporting its complete verdict in this case, he stated.
He wrote that subsequent written communication between the jury and the court reveals that the jury had, in fact, taken three votes. The jury completed the special verdict from finding Hurd guilty of a third charge aggravated OUI accomplice liability in less than nine minutes.
He concluded that the jury had not been discharged and that the court properly acted to allow the jury to report its complete verdict. had not occurred where the jury continues to function as an undispersed unit, was not subject to outside pressures or influences and remained under the control of the court. He stated that trial courts should have the discretion to correct obvious mistakes.
Andrews said Tuesday that the state cannot take Hurd back to court on the case.
“The jury asked to speak to the judge immediately after they returned to the jury room, raised a unique situation. One that I have never encountered in 20 years of prosecuting,” Andrews said.
It's kind of difficult for the court to proceed when there is not a lot of precedence of case law, he said.
Hartley was not immediately available for comment.