A woman who served as a juror during a murder trial last year says other members may have violated a judge’s order not to watch an episode of “The First 48” that focused on the Mobile Police Department’s (MPD) investigation of the case they were deciding — a case scheduled to be retried next week.
Caryn Laguio was one of the 12 jurors seated for what was supposed to be the capital murder trial of Anthony Nathaniel Ford Jr. Ford, 27, was one of two suspects charged with murder in the 2016 killings of Salathio Lockett, 20, and Shamichael Scott, 19, who were found shot to death in a local PNC Bank parking lot.
A co-defendant, 23-year-old Caesar Lamar Harris, pleaded guilty to murder in early 2019. Ford has admitted to being present when the shooting occurred, picking up a gun from the scene and giving Harris a ride afterward, but maintains he didn’t fire any shots and didn’t know about the shooting in advance.
His case went to trial in late 2019 — roughly two years after the TV episode “Runner, Runner” first aired on A&E. It was the second “The First 48” episode that prominently featured the MPD homicide unit and it was something the court, the defense and prosecutors considered when seating the jury.
“When [Presiding Circuit Judge John Lockett] explained everything to us, he told us that there was a show called ‘The First 48’ and he instructed us not to watch it,” Laguio said. “Nothing was mentioned during the week of the trial about the show, though.”
Laguio said that changed after the jurors returned from a weekend break in their deliberations. The Friday before, Laguio claims all but one member of the jury seemed to support acquitting Ford of the charges against him, which prosecutors had moved to reduce from capital murder to felony murder during the trial.
Before court was dismissed for the weekend, she said Lockett reminded jurors not to read or watch anything pertaining to the case including the previously aired episode of the “The First 48.”
After returning the next Monday, Laguio said two more jurors were either on the fence or convinced Ford was guilty. As is typical in lengthy deliberations, Laguio said things had become tense between the jurors who disagreed, and when pressed on their positions, at least one mentioned “The First 48.”
“All of a sudden one of them said, ‘Well, that’s not what I saw on ‘The First 48,’” she said. “And when we told them they weren’t supposed to watch that, the reaction was, ‘Like you didn’t?’”
Like “Cops” and other true crime shows, every episode of “The First 48” opens with a disclaimer that reads something like, “Criminal charges are often dropped or reduced, and all suspects shown are presumed innocent until proven guilty.” But the show’s tone isn’t always as objective.
The network’s own description of the program notes it gives viewers “unprecedented access” to detectives and their work as they try to “identify the killers.”
Laguio, who says she doesn’t even have cable, claims she didn’t watch the episode until after the case ended with a hung jury and the judge released them to go home. After finally seeing it, she now understands how the tone of the show could impact what jurors thought about the case.
“It just seemed to pick out bits and pieces … I guess to give them ratings, but that’s not all of what went on in that courtroom,” Laguio said. “It’d be fine if they would let somebody have a fair trial first, then show it, because they’re not showing the full picture of what’s actually happening.”
To be fair, it would be impossible to fit every detail of a months-long investigation into a 35-minute show, and as Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich pointed out, there are many things that could potentially impact jurors’ perceptions before or during the trials they’re asked to decide.
Someone reading this article might be asked to report for jury duty when Ford’s retrial begins March 16.
“What disturbs me is that this lady is alleging that her fellow jurors intentionally violated a direct court order, and that is something they could be held in contempt of court for,” Rich said. “Regardless of whether it’s ‘The First 48,’ looking something up on Google or going to a crime scene — jurors are specifically told not to do that and to listen to only what’s presented on the witness stand and the law.”
Rich did say, prior to this particular case, her office has never run into any issues with MPD cases featured on “The First 48.” Police Chief Lawrence Battiste echoed a similar sentiment, saying he’s not received any complaints from prosecutors or defense attorneys whose clients were portrayed in the show.
Battiste also said the court makes significant efforts to weed out any juror who might have been impacted by viewing the show or any media coverage of a trial they’re being asked to sit for. He said those who can’t render a fair verdict are typically dismissed by the presiding judge.
Though, to protect ongoing investigations and the privacy of suspects who haven’t been charged with a crime, Battiste said A&E agrees not to air any episode about a particular case until that case has been presented to a grand jury and an indictment has been secured.
Ultimately, Battiste said he thinks “The First 48” is a good way to show the community the hard work MPD’s homicide unit is doing to bring justice to families. He notes their clearance rate for homicides, 85.7 percent, is and has routinely been above the national average.
Battiste said he also believes exposure on national television helps humanize MPD’s homicide detectives, which can help when future cases are being investigated in the community.
“People get to see the work that goes into dealing with a homicide investigation and the compassion that officers have in trying to bring justice to families,” he said. “I think that’s where ‘The First 48’ is helping us as a community and when we’re investigating these cases.”
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