Jurors were examining evidence while deliberating a drug case in the jury room of a Franklin County courthouse when one of them dropped a bag of cocaine on the table.
Within seconds, they were asking a bailiff for help.
The bag had broken, spraying powder across the table.
“The jury had to be cleared from the room and deputies were sent in to clean it up,” defense attorney J. Tullis Rogers said, recalling an incident that occurred more than a decade ago.
Rogers, who represented the defendant in the case, said he thought about the mishap recently when he heard that drug evidence was lost after a jury trial in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
An envelope containing 71 oxycodone pills was examined by jurors but couldn’t be found after they convicted Phillip M. Edwards of multiple counts of drug possession on July 20.
Either case could cause court officials to rethink giving jurors access to drug evidence while they deliberate, Rogers said.
Edwards’ attorney, John David Moore Jr., filed a motion for a new trial, alleging that one or more jurors stole the pills, creating “prejudice or unfair bias to the defendant.”
Assistant Prosecutor Dan Stanley filed a response last week, arguing that the theft allegation is nothing more than speculation.
“The loss of evidence is currently under investigation by the Franklin County sheriff’s office, but in the range of possibilities, it is just as possible that the small manila envelope was thrown out by the cleaning crew that night,” he wrote.
Prosecutor Ron O’Brien and Judge Stephen L. McIntosh, administrative judge for the Common Pleas Court, have said they are reviewing procedures for securing drug evidence and sending it to jury rooms during deliberations.
Both think it’s important in most cases to provide juries with access to drug evidence, although O’Brien said his office is reviewing ways to make such evidence more secure.
He is looking into obtaining clear acrylic boxes, for example, that packages of drugs can be locked inside. The boxes would provide another protection between jurors and drugs and be difficult to misplace or pilfer, O’Brien said.
Judges and prosecutors in the federal court in Columbus seem more reluctant to provide jurors with drugs, guns and other evidence considered contraband.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David DeVillers, who frequently handles federal drug prosecutions locally, said he rarely marks drugs as exhibits for the jury to examine during deliberations.
“We try not to have contraband go back there, whether it’s drugs, guns, cash, ammunition, knives or child pornography,” he said.
In most cases, it’s enough for the jurors to see the drugs during the trial and hear experts confirm the type and amount of the drugs, DeVillers said.
When it’s time for deliberations, the jurors will get inventory slips, lab reports, photos and other documents to establish what drugs are at issue in the case, he said.
“What’s the importance of (the drugs) going back?” he asked.
U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. estimated that in 60 percent of the drug cases in his courtroom, drugs do not go to the jury room during deliberations.
“But I’ve had cases where cocaine with a street value in the hundreds of thousands of dollars was sent back” to the jury, he said.
He called the news of the missing oxycodone pills in Common Pleas Court “the kind of thing that gives judges nightmares. You hear about things that keep doctors up at night. This is something that keeps judges up at night.”
After hearing about the incident, Sargus said he had a conversation with his courtroom deputy, the title for bailiffs in federal court, to review policies and procedures for securing evidence.
“It’s never a bad idea to review and fine-tune those kinds of things,” he said.
Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys stress that no one can recall a previous case in which evidence given to jurors disappeared after deliberations ended.
“If, in the last 40 years, we haven’t had this occur, do you really want to take steps to change what we do in all other cases?” O’Brien asked. “I have found that giving a jury the ability to see and touch and examine the marked exhibits is beneficial to the state and the defense.”
Rogers, who has practiced law for nearly 50 years, said it comes down to trusting those who accept the call to jury duty.
“I don’t want to give jurors the feeling that we don’t trust them,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get them to come down and be a juror, anyway.”