MAYS LANDING — A member of the jury that acquitted an Egg Harbor Township man of vehicular homicide in September was fined $1,000 after a judge convicted him of reading newspaper coverage during the trial.
Peter Kearney was found guilty of contempt of court for violating the judge’s repeated warnings not to follow news coverage of the trial.
Kearney’s apparent remorse and lack of a criminal record saved him from jail time, which Superior Court Judge Michael Donio said he “seriously contemplated” in an effort to send a message to future jurors that outside investigation of a case wouldn’t be tolerated.
William Simkins was accused of chasing down three teens on bikes after seeing one vandalize his mother’s car early Sept. 6, 2010, fatally striking Jacob Broschard, 16. Simkins then fled the scene.
Kearney and 11 other jurors found Simkins not guilty of vehicular homicide but found him guilty of leaving the scene of a fatal crash, which carries a prison sentence of five to 10 years.
But instead of being sentenced, Simkins has been waiting for a ruling that could give him a new trial after it was reported that Kearney read about the trial and discussed it with a co-worker.
At least three times each day, Donio said he instructed jurors not to read or watch any coverage of the case or to do their own investigation.
But Kearney not only logged on to The Press of Atlantic City’s website and read stories about the trial, he also discussed testimony with Brian Sessa, the former co-worker testified during a hearing Oct. 11.
At that time, Kearney invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself when he was asked if he had read any of the coverage.
But Donio said he found Sessa more believable.
On Friday, Kearney testified that he read two of The Press’ stories during the trial, but his testimony was protected by immunity. Instead, it will be considered when Donio rules on whether the violation of the jury instruction is enough for a new trial for Simkins on the leaving-the-scene charge.
Intent, not just reading the stories, is necessary to be found guilty of contempt of court, Donio said. And he ruled that Kearney’s intent was to conduct his own investigation into the case.
That cannot be tolerated, Donio said.
“Without a fair and impartial jury, there can be no credibility attached to a court verdict,” he said.
“I didn’t think this would affect so many people,” Kearney told the judge before he was sentenced. “I sincerely apologize.”
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