Burlington murder trial delayed by tainted jury

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) A murder trial for a Burlington man has been delayed after jury members violated a media blackout.

Twenty-six-year-old Chavis Murphy, of Burlington, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of 28-year-old Obafemi Adedapo. Authorities said Adedapo was shot by Murphy multiple times on a city block after a bar dispute over a woman.

Opening statements in the trial were scheduled to start Tuesday, but a judge said the court should "start over" after two alternate jurors said they watched and read news stories about the trial.

Preventing jurors from being exposed to media reports on criminal trials is difficult. Having impartial jurors is vital to a fair trial. And achieving that in today's digital age is only getting more challenging for Vermont's judges.

It's a question that Judge Howard VanBenthuysen says comes before any criminal trial: "Has anyone approached you to discuss this case since your selection as a juror?" he said.

But the answer is crucial. That was apparent Tuesday morning when Chavis Murphy's first-degree murder trial was delayed after the judge learned two jurors had viewed print and television news stories about the case. "It's been a challenge since Gutenberg invented the printing press," Judge VanBenthuysen said. He has sat on Vermont's state court bench for two decades. He's not involved in the Burlington murder trial, but he says today's new cyber age is only strengthening a longtime challenge. "We've always had concern -- as judges and trial lawyers -- about publicity impacting the impartiality of a particular juror or potential juror. It's just heightened now in an age of a 24/7 news cycle."

Jurors can be excused if they know too much about a case, or can't put something out of their mind that they've seen in the media. "Once you've been selected to be a juror though, you are our judge of the facts. You are empaneled to tell us what happened in a particular case with your verdict. And so it's very important that jurors be insulated from outside influences at that point," Judge VanBenthuysen said.

But insulating jurors is not easy in today's ever-changing digital world. While a jury could be sequestered, it's rarely used by the courts in Vermont. "We rely, to some extent, on the good faith and the honesty of the jurors to come into court and then to reveal, 'Hey Judge, lawyers, I heard something or I learned something about this case,'" Judge VanBenthuysen said.

And that's what happened in the Burlington case -- which resulted in the two alternate jurors being dismissed. "A taint if you will, or an influence on a particular panel, can be so widespread where there can be fears that it has spread throughout a panel, that you really have to start over," Judge VanBenthuysen said.

And starting over is exactly what the judge wanted to do in today's murder case. A new jury draw likely won't occur for another few months.