Mattawamkeag man wants domestic violence conviction overturned because of juror’s expression of religious beliefs

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court
Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 15, 2014, at 2:21 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A Mattawamkeag man found guilty of domestic violence assault in early 2013 is now saying the jury pool may have been tainted, and he wants the state’s highest court to throw out his conviction.

In a February 2013 trial, Michael Lanahan was convicted by a jury of kicking and punching his wife — to a point where the victim’s nose “sprayed blood,” according to court documents — during a nightlong fight over finances in August of 2012.

During the 2013 trial, Lanahan argued that although his wife was the victim of an assault, the perpetrator was instead another man with whom she was having an affair.

On Wednesday morning in Portland, Lanahan’s attorney, Jamesa Drake, argued before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that the guilty verdict should be overturned because one woman on that jury told her fellow jurors she couldn’t render a judgment due to her religious beliefs.

Lanahan is seeking a new trial.

According to court documents, a woman known only as Juror 76 expressed concerns to her fellow jurors about being on the jury because, she said, it’s only “God’s place to the judge” others.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said Wednesday she’s unsure how Juror 76’s statements could be seen as prejudicial against Lanahan.

“The juror said, ‘I don’t think I can form a judgment,’” Saufley said, adding, “Isn’t it the state [prosecution] that is more likely to be prejudiced by that?”

Drake told the law court that while the judge at the trial appropriately excused Juror 76 from duty after learning of the comments, the judge did not follow up to make sure other jurors weren’t improperly influenced by the conversation.

“We don’t know how big of a deal this was,” Drake argued during Wednesday’s hearing. “The problem is we don’t know what any juror said in response.”

Drake argued that without a more thorough lower court investigation to definitively determine that other jurors weren’t tainted by the talk, the high court must err on the side of caution and grant Lanahan a new trial.

“The public has an interest in making sure that people in Maine get fair trials before neutral fact finders,” she said.

Justice Donald Alexander said Drake’s stronger argument would be to point out more forcefully that the judge at the lower court level neglected to instruct jurors early in the trial not to discuss the case among themselves during breaks in the proceedings. Such instruction is considered standard procedure in trials, but was left out on two occasions when the jury recessed in the trial’s early going.

Talking to Penobscot County Assistant District Attorney Tracy Collins Lacher, representing the state in the case, Alexander called the omission of any specific instruction to the jury from the judge not to talk about the case “a very serious problem.”

“This case was what was going on in front of them,” Alexander said. “Isn’t it a reasonable inference that they would have gone back and said, ‘Wow, wasn’t that a great argument’ or ‘Geez, I don’t believe that attorney’?”

Collins Lacher argued that there is no evidence that, despite the lack of judge’s instruction on those two occasions, the jurors engaged in any improper conversation beyond the comments admitted to by Juror 76.

Collins Lacher also noted that, during the trial itself, the defense attorneys representing Lanahan did not seek any remediation beyond the excusal of Juror 76 herself.

There is no timetable upon which the state supreme court must reach a decision on the case.

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