Loretta Saunders murder trial almost derailed by Twitter
Media tweeted gist of questions for potential jurors in case of Halifax student whose body was dumped in N.B.
Blake Leggette tried to get a mistrial declared in his murder case in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, just hours before he pleaded guilty to killing Loretta Saunders, the 26-year-old university student whose body was found along a New Brunswick highway last year.
Leggette pleaded guilty in the Halifax courtroom on Wednesday to first-degree murder, while co-accused Victoria Henneberry, originally charged with first-degree murder, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. The two were Saunders's roommates.
- Saunders killed by roommates because they were short on rent
- Blake Leggette hoped for book deal about Loretta Saunders's murder
Terry Sheppard, Leggette's lawyer, was in a closed courtroom on Tuesday morning arguing for a mistrial.
"We did consider a mistrial in the case," Sheppard said Wednesday.
"The media starts tweeting out stuff they're not supposed to tweet out and that taints the jury pool. That's a very serious concern for the administration of justice in this province."
Challenge for cause process
Saunders was missing for some two weeks before her body was found. She had been studying at Saint Mary's University before she went missing from her Halifax apartment.
Because of the publicity in the case before the trial began, prospective jurors were being screened through a process known as challenge for cause. The judge asked each member of the jury pool the same series of questions that had been agreed to and drafted by the lawyers in the case.
Each prospective juror was asked whether he or she had heard anything about the Saunders case. Almost all of the prospective jurors answered yes.
Some said they had learned about the case that morning, suggesting that after the judge told them what case they were being asked to hear, they used their smartphones to do research while they were sitting in the courtroom waiting for their names to be called.
If a prospective juror said they had heard about the case, Justice Josh Arnold would then ask whether they had formed an opinion about it. If they answered yes, he had a followup question: whether they could put it all out of their minds and consider the case only on the evidence they were to hear.
Questioned one at a time
Some people told court they couldn't put it out of their minds. Those people didn't make it any further in the screening process.
To help ensure no one would learn too much about the screening process, the jury pool was kept in one courtroom while prospective jurors were questioned, one at a time, in a separate courtroom.
Arnold and the lawyers involved in the case became concerned late Monday afternoon when they learned some members of the media, who were observing the process, had tweeted the gist of the questions being posed.
On Tuesday morning, the judge huddled with the lawyers to discuss their concerns. It was then that Sheppard made his bid for a mistrial — a bid that Arnold rejected.
But Arnold did broaden the publication ban covering the process, instructing media they were not to report anything about the challenge for cause process. He also banned any mention of the mistrial application until after the case was dealt with.
He subsequently refined his ban to allow reporting on the progress being made in picking jurors.
The judge and lawyers also refined the questions posed to prospective jury members, and included a question about whether they had read anything about the selection process. Every juror who faced that question said they hadn't.
One person who eventually made it on to the final jury of 14 told the court that once he received his jury summons, he stopped reading court stories in the media.
But it was apparent from their answers that many others in the pool were going out of their way to learn what they could about the murder case they were being asked to judge.