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LISTEN: Mass. Juror Claims Racism During Deliberations In 30-Year-Old Murder Case

September 5, 2017

Barbara Howard: A juror who helped convict a man of first-degree murder, a conviction that sent him to prison for life more than 30 years ago, was back in court last week. This, after she came forward with claims of racial bias during deliberations. She spoke out in court on Friday and recounted what she says happened during those deliberations in the trial of Darrell Jones. He's a black man who was tried before an all-white jury. Jenifer McKim with WGBH News partner the New England Center for Investigative Reporting has been following this story. She came into the studio to talk about it. Hi Jenifer.

Jenifer McKim: Hello.

Barbara Howard: So, give us some background of the case and this man, Darrell Jones.

Jenifer McKim: So Darrell Jones, who was 18 years old when he was arrested for the murder of a alleged drug dealer in a Brockton parking lot. And he was convicted a year later for this crime. Basically, not one eyewitness in the courtroom actually pointed to him in court and said he did it and there was no physical evidence, but he was convicted. Now years later, he's always maintained that he is innocent. He's filed his third motion to reopen this case, and it has brought up these interesting allegations of racial bias.

Barbara Howard: So Jones had already been trying to get the case reopened when this juror, whose name is Eleanor Urbati — is that her name?

Jenifer McKim: Yes.

Barbara Howard: She came forward with claims of bias during deliberations, right?

Jenifer McKim: Correct. So we at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting started investigating his innocence plea a couple of years ago, and as part of that investigation, we met Miss Urbati, who told us in an interview that she always regretted convicting Darrell Jones, that she was the last holdout juror in a hung jury and that she remembered that a juror had said that he thought that Darrell was guilty because he was black. She told us this. We printed it in our story, and it ended up coming to the attention of the judge who's considering this case.

Barbara Howard: Now this juror, Eleanor Urbati, she was in court. What happened?

Jenifer McKim: So she testified in court that on the first day of deliberations more than 30 years ago, a juror said that Darrell Jones was guilty and she said ‘Why? Because he's black?’ and he [the juror] said ‘Yes.’ So she's always regretted that she didn't speak up in the past about this, and she's always regretted her decision to convict him. Here is a cut from her after the hearing.

CLIP: OK. He's been in jail all this time, and I didn't think he did it. And I never should have changed my mind.

Barbara Howard: What do the other jurors have to say?

Jenifer McKim: So the court reached out to all the jurors that they could — it's 30 years ago. A lot of people have moved, some people have died. They were able to reach out to some of them. They had a hearing a couple of weeks ago in which three jurors came and basically said I can't remember anything. I can't remember if it happened or not. So she is the only juror who has said that it's happened, and no one's really been able to either confirm or refute that.

Barbara Howard: Now, it also sounds like regardless of bias in the jury, the evidence against Jones was not all that strong to begin with.

Jenifer McKim: Definitely. There's a lot of questions that come in Darrel Jones case. The prosecutor at the time came up with no motive. There was no physical evidence. It was an eyewitness case and yet none of the eyewitnesses said in court this is the man who did it. And there is a really unusual videotape that was aired during the court hearing that had a mistake in it which was either —as Darrell calls — tampered with or the police said was just a mistake. So there's a lot of interesting things the judge is now going to be taking into consideration the allegations of racism as well as these other claims.

Barbara Howard: Now I understand this juror who came forward, Eleanor Urbati, she had some interaction with Darrel Jones’ mother?

Jenifer McKim: It was very compelling. After the hearing, Darrell Jones’ mother Edna Sawyer who had come up from Virginia, she has been coming to all his court hearings, was out, as well as some of their other family, and basically Miss Urbati said, ‘I'm sorry’ and her [Darrell Jones] mom said, ‘Don't be.’ And she remembered them crying together after the conviction.You can hear this tape:

CLIP: And I said to my mom, ‘Why is she crying, like she a member of the family or something?’ And when you came in the bathroom, we was in there and you broke down. And when you broke down, you broke down. And me and you and my mom, we cried. I remember crying, I know that.

Barbara Howard: Now Jennifer, you believe that this is the first time a Massachusetts jury has been reconvened like this one?

Jenifer McKim: Right. So this is all prompted by a March Supreme Court decision that is requiring trial judges to bring juries in if there are questions of bias. We understand this is the first time here in Massachusetts. What the next step is the judge will be determining whether or not to vacate his conviction and open it up again.

Barbara Howard: OK, thanks for joining us Jenifer.

Jenifer McKim: Thank you very much.

Barbara Howard: That's Jenifer McKim of WGBH news partner The New England Center for Investigative Reporting. 

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