Inquiry into jury impropriety during Hughes murder trial begins in New London

Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed, center, of the New London District Superior Court, speaks with state prosecutor Christa L. Baker, left, and defendant attorney Walter D. Hussey during the first day of the murder trial of Dante A. Hughes in courtroom 3 of the New London Superior Court on July 11, 2018. Jongbloed questioned jurors from the trial Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, after one member reported that another had looked up the definition of manslaughter in a dictionary, despite the judge's instructions not to do so. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed, center, of the New London District Superior Court, speaks with state prosecutor Christa L. Baker, left, and defendant attorney Walter D. Hussey during the first day of the murder trial of Dante A. Hughes in courtroom 3 of the New London Superior Court on July 11, 2018. Jongbloed questioned jurors from the trial Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, after one member reported that another had looked up the definition of manslaughter in a dictionary, despite the judge's instructions not to do so. (Tim Martin/The Day)

One of the 12 jurors who in July found Dante A. Hughes guilty of manslaughter — but not murder — in the December 2016 shooting death of Joey Gingerella admitted Tuesday in New London Superior Court that he looked up the definition of manslaughter in "Webster's Dictionary" during deliberations in July.

"I had a general idea of what manslaughter was," the middle-aged male juror said under questioning by Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed. "I looked it up in the dictionary. I wanted the definition."

The juror told other members he had looked up the definition. A few days after the verdict, one panel member who went to the courthouse to ask about payment for her service mentioned it to a court employee, prompting Tuesday's hearing to uncover whether there had been any improprieties.

The juror said the dictionary definition did not affect his ability to be fair and impartial, and that he was able to follow the court's instructions — which included the state's manslaughter statute — when deciding the case.

Testimony at the trial had revealed that Hughes shot Gingerella, 24, in the parking lot of Ryan's Pub in Groton after Gingerella and others stepped in to stop Hughes from beating his live-in girlfriend, Latoya Knight. Gingerella, who sustained three gunshot wounds, was pronounced dead a short time later.

Hughes, who is 32, faces up to 50 years in prison when Jongbloed sentences him Oct. 4. He stands convicted of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm with reckless indifference for human life, which carries a 40-year maximum sentence, and criminal possession of a firearm, which exposes him to an additional 10 years.

The revelation that a juror had consulted outside information could endanger the verdict.

During the trial, the judge repeatedly issued a standard instruction to jurors not to conduct any outside investigation, and told them to rely on only the evidence they received in the courtroom and her instructions on the relevant laws.  

"The defendant in a situation like this would be compelled to file a motion for a new trial," said Hughes' attorney, Walter D. Hussey, as the inquiry began.

The hearing will resume Thursday, after which the judge will decide whether the verdict is valid. 

On Tuesday, 11 of the 12 members of the jury were brought into the courtroom separately and questioned by Jongbloed. Hughes was seated at the defense table with his attorney, and prosecutors Paul J. Narducci and Christa L. Baker were present. Family members of Gingerella and Hughes were in the gallery.

The jury appears to have struggled with the issue of intent during its deliberations. To find Hughes guilty of murder, they would have had to find that he acted with intent to kill somebody and did, in fact, kill somebody. On the fourth day of deliberations, they found him not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter in the first degree with a firearm, defined as, "when under circumstances evincing an extreme indifference to human life, he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby causes the death of another person."

The jurors testified Tuesday that during deliberations, the male juror told them he had looked up the definition of manslaughter in the dictionary and they told him he was not supposed to do that.

"They were discussing the manslaughter vs. murder distinction," a female juror testified. "He said to this other gentleman, 'Look it up,' and the man said, 'We're not supposed to do that,' and he said, 'Well, I did.'"

The man started to recite the definition, "and we all said, 'Stop!'" the woman said.

The jurors said that after the issue came up, they sent a note to the judge asking if they could use the dictionary and were told they couldn't. All of them said that no outside information prevented them from being fair and impartial and that they were able to use the 26 pages of detailed instructions from the court when rendering their decision.

The juror who admitted to looking up the definition of manslaughter told the judge the jury was split 8-4 at that point.

"Manslaughter is an accidental thing and I don't believe it was an accident and I wanted people to know," he said.

Though the judge told the juror not to discuss the "mental processes" that took place during the deliberations, the man went on to say that the verdict had not gone his way and that, for him, the difference between murder and manslaughter was "about malice and forethought."

The 12th juror will be interviewed when the hearing resumes Thursday afternoon.

Though Tuesday's hearing was limited to the dictionary issue, a couple of the jurors provided additional information that led to further questions. 

One member said his short-term memory is "shot" because he's been taking the medication Lunesta to treat insomnia. He said he was having problems sleeping and has sleep apnea. At the defense attorney's request, Jongbloed asked the man whether he had taken the drug during the trial. He said no.

Also, it was revealed that after the trial, Hughes' mother had called one juror at her workplace to thank her for her service. The judge and attorneys agreed the phone call had no bearing on the outcome of the trial.

k.florin@theday.com

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