Juror in Priest Case Expresses Misgivings about the Verdict

By Robert Hanley
New York Times
June 4, 2003

ACKENSACK, N.J., June 3 - A juror who in April helped convict a Roman Catholic priest of sexually abusing a teenage boy has expressed misgivings about the verdict and complained about facing "undue pressure" from other jurors to find the priest guilty.

In a May 13 letter to the presiding judge in the trial of the priest, the Rev. Michael Fugee, the juror expressed a belief in his innocence.

"An hour before the verdict was reached, 8 of 12 jurors believed that there was not enough evidence to find Father Michael guilty," the juror wrote of deliberations on April 11. "Somehow, a split decision was negotiated and I felt undue pressure by the jury to conform."

The president of the New Jersey Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Maria Noto, said it was rare for a juror to write a letter of regret about a verdict. Ms. Noto said she knew of only two such letters in her 20 years of practice. She also said such juror misgivings are unlikely to upset a conviction or lead to a new trial without evidence of improper jury activities or misconduct during deliberations.

Father Fugee's lawyer, Brian J. Neary, has cited the juror's letter as possible grounds for a mistrial and asked the trial judge, Charles J. Walsh, of New Jersey Superior Court, to question the juror about possible misconduct by other jurors. In his motion, Mr. Neary argued that jurors seeking a conviction had apparently misled other jurors about the verdict he had asked the jury to return in his closing argument.

"Some jurors apparently lied to other jurors in order to `negotiate' a verdict," Mr. Neary said in his motion.

Judge Walsh has scheduled a hearing for June 20. The Bergen County prosecutor, John L. Molinelli, said he would argue against questioning the juror.

Mr. Neary's motion said he had urged the jury in his summation to acquit Father Fugee, 43, of both charges against him - aggravated criminal sexual contact and endangering the welfare of a minor. The charges stemmed from the youth's accusation that the priest brushed his hand across the teenager's crotch during four impromptu sessions of wrestling at the boy's home in Wyckoff, N.J., in 1999 and 2000.

In a split decision on April 11, the jury convicted the priest of the sexual contact charge and acquitted him of the other charge.

Shortly after the verdict, Mr. Neary filed a motion seeking either the priest's acquittal or a new trial on grounds the jury's verdict was logically inconsistent.

In the May 13 letter, the complaining juror said that during deliberations several jurors told the others that Mr. Neary had argued for a verdict similar to the one ultimately returned. The juror complained that those jurors had misrepresented Mr. Neary's position during deliberations.

"They had felt I could not hear it from my position, but this was misinformation," the juror said of Mr. Neary's request.

"I deeply apologize to the judicial system for not having the courage to stick with my convictions and caving in at the last moment in order to reach a verdict," the juror wrote.

The existence of the letter was first reported today by The Record of Hackensack. The juror's name was listed in Mr. Neary's motion as "Anonymous."

Father Fugee has been on a voluntary administrative leave since his arrest in 2001.

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