DUI Manslaughter Case Nearly Ended by Mistrial After Allegations of Juror Bias

Finebloom, Haenel & Higgins

Mario Careaga, an insurance executive from Broward County, was found guilty of DUI manslaughter for his roll in the death of Miami Heat dancer Nancy Lopez-Ruiz in 2010.  Careaga was driving after leaving a party at a department store when he struck Lopez-Ruiz, who was parked on the side of the road on her motorcycle.  Lopez-Ruiz was thrown 130 feet by the impact.  Tests on Careaga showed that his BAC was .28 at the time of the crash, over 3 times the legal limit of .08.  The case against Careaga was strong and included video evidence of the crash.  A jury found him guilty on March 25, 2014, but that verdict was quickly put on hold as word spread that one of the jurors had made anti-gay comments about Careaga.  Late on March 27, 2014, it was announced that the judge in the case found against the defendant in his motion for a mistrial based on this alleged jury bias.  Careaga was immediately taken to jail and will be sentenced in May.

Mistrials happen in criminal cases when there is some fatal flaw to the case.  This could happen for many reasons including inadmissible evidence making it to the jury, jurors not being able to agree on a verdict, jury tampering or juror bias.  One well-known Florida mistrial in recent memory was in the trial of Michael Dunn, where the jury couldn’t unanimously agree on a verdict.  The result of a mistrial is that the trial against the defendant is effectively over.  The prosecution at that point could choose to either retry the case or not.  In Dunn’s case, there will be a new trial.  When there are good grounds for a judge to declare a mistrial and they do not, there is a much higher chance of the guilty verdict against a defendant being overturned and a new trial ordered by the appeals court.

In Careaga’s case, the mistrial was asked for based on juror bias.  According to witnesses, one juror in the case was making anti-gay comments about Careaga, who is, in fact, gay.  While evidence of being gay or straight would not normally be allowed in a criminal case, it became pretty clear that Careaga was gay when his partner of 20 years testified on his behalf.  An alternate juror who told the defense attorney after the verdict was announced heard the alleged comments.  Another juror supported this story when asked by the judge.  The juror who made the comments has denied that he ever made them.

The appearance of juror bias in this case because of Careaga’s sexual orientation is problematic to say the least.  Every criminal defendant has a right under the U.S. Constitution to an unbiased jury.  This is a right under the Sixth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment and possibly the Fifth Amendment.  A juror has a duty to decide on a case based on the evidence presented in it, not on things such as sexual orientation, religion, color, or any other reason not based on what was presented to them as evidence.

Even if there is no hard and fast evidence that anti-gay comments were made in this case, there existed enough evidence where an otherwise strong case could end up having its verdict overturned.   At the very least, there will likely be many more years of litigation surrounding it.  An appeal will almost definitely happen by defense counsel at this point and the chances of them being successful are pretty strong.  That could mean an entirely new trial and a process that could be dragged out for years longer than it would have if the comments were never made.