A Livermore man sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for killing a woman and her child in a drunk-driving crash five years ago recently won an appeal of his convictions due to an improper juror dismissal.
Brian Jones, 40, had been serving a 30 years to life sentence without the possibility of parole until last month. In a 2-1 decision handed down on June 15, the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District ruled that Jones' right to a fair trial was violated when a juror who had reported the misconduct of a fellow juror was dismissed by trial Judge Paul Delucchi of the Alameda County Superior Court.
In an email, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office told the Weekly, "Our office is reviewing the decision" and will decide whether to appeal the decision.
With the new ruling, Jones could be transferred from Folsom State Prison to Santa Rita Jail and potentially be re-tried by the Alameda County District Attorney's Office on murder charges. Jones was convicted in 2017, following a highly public trial in which Jones' counsel argued for jurors to find him guilty of manslaughter instead of murder.
The re-seated jury found Jones guilty of murdering 46-year-old Esperanza Morales Rodriguez and her 14-month-old daughter Yulida Perez-Morales in May 2015, when the mother and daughter were visiting outside a relative's home in Livermore and were struck by Jones' car. He had attended the Livermore Wine Country Festival earlier that day and his blood-alcohol level was 0.14, nearly double the legal limit for drinking and driving.
Livermore police at the time said Jones was under the influence of alcohol as he sped his Corvette through city streets, hitting speeds from 75 to 99 mph before he lost control and crashed into Rodriguez and her daughter at the 900 block of Murrieta Boulevard.
The dismissal of Juror No. 10 was the deciding factor of the appeal; according to court documents, the day after jury deliberations began, "Juror No. 10 left the jury room during a break and informed the courtroom clerk that another juror revealed in deliberations that Jones had a prior conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol."
The other juror -- referred to as Juror No. 9 -- had read a news report that cited Jones' conviction of driving while intoxicated in Sacramento County in 2003. Prosecutors agreed to withhold that piece of information from jurors on the grounds that it would be prejudicial. Jurors are prohibited from reading news reports and other case information from outside the courtroom.
No vote had been taken yet in the jury room, but Juror No. 10 had been considering a manslaughter conviction instead of murder, according to the appellate court ruling. Juror No. 10 told Delucchi that she "felt it was said to persuade me to agree with them on Item No. 3 for the murder charge."
Delucchi then asked Juror No. 10 if "the information that you received and the context within which you received it and kind of the impression that you had as to why it was being brought up would make it very difficult for you to continue in your deliberations."
Juror No. 10 said yes because she was "concerned with 'the way it was stated' because the statement about the prior conviction was made with 'attitude,'" according to the ruling. She also said she was "somewhat coerced in how (she) felt."
Juror No. 9 was dismissed as well for their misconduct.
The defense counsel objected to the dismissal of Juror No. 10, whom Delucchi said "expressed ... an inability to continue deliberating based upon, not so much the information but ... in many ways the way in which it was presented to her."
"She indicated that she felt that she was being bullied, that it was directed at her and it was done not to just persuade her to go in one particular direction but she use(d) the ... term 'bullying' and indicated she would be unable to participate in the process further," Delucchi said. "For that reason, the court is inclined to dismiss that juror."
The appellate court majority contended in their ruling that Delucchi "never asked her directly whether she could continue."
"Instead, the court asked her if it would be 'very difficult' for her to continue. At best, the question is ambiguous, which is insufficient," First Appellate District Justice Gordon Burns and Presiding Justice Barbara Jones wrote in the decision, adding that they were "sympathetic to the quandary facing the trial judge in these circumstances" but that Delucchi's "conclusion that Juror No. 10 was unable or unwilling to continue deliberating" was not supported by any "demonstrable reality."
Justice Henry Needham wrote in the sole dissenting opinion, "The majority opinion elevates the demonstrable evidence standard to a daunting new height." Needham also pointed out that Delucchi was not asked to question Juror No. 10 any more by the prosecution or defense.
"When it comes down to it, the discharge of Juror No. 10 was the clearly prudent decision, or at the very least within the trial court's broad discretion," Needham said. "To reverse the conviction because the judge did not employ the best words to convey the obvious is not consonant with appellate review or justice."
Prosecutors must prove that the defendant was aware their driving would likely kill someone, in order to pursue a murder charge for a DUI case. Jones' attorney argued during the trial that his client acted recklessly but didn't intend to kill anyone and should only be convicted on a lesser charge of gross vehicular manslaughter.
The Livermore community was shocked and outraged by the fatal crash, which also made wine festival organizers consider changing their guidelines for how alcohol is served at the annual festival. Jones is still in custody at Folsom State Prison, according to public records.