Jury flipped coin to convict man of murder

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Jury flipped coin to convict man of murder

Judge learns about conduct, declares mistrial

By KIM WESSEL, The Courier-Journal

A jury unable to decide on a verdict tossed a coin last week to convict a man of murder, prompting a judge to declare a mistrial yesterday.

The Jefferson County Circuit Court jury of five men and seven women deliberated about nine hours over two days last week before finding Phillip J. Givens II guilty of murder for killing his girlfriend, Monica Briggs, 29, last May.

Givens, 28, was back in court yesterday, facing a maximum sentence of life in prison, when Judge Kenneth Conliffe learned how the jury had reached its verdict.

Brian Butler, one of the prosecutors in the case, said one of the jurors apparently told someone about the coin toss, and that person told someone who works in the Jefferson County court system. The court employee told a judge, who brought it to Conliffe's attention, Butler said.

Conliffe declined to be interviewed about the incident.

In court yesterday, Conliffe told David Melton, 45, the jury foreman, "It has come to the attention of the court, that with the great deal of difficulty that the jury had, that you all got to a point where you were in essence almost hung, and that you may have resolved the issue by a flip of the coin."

Melton acknowledged that had happened.

Conliffe declared a mistrial, and set a new trial for Sept. 12.

Givens' lawyer, Mark Chandler, said it's "scary" to think that 12 people would decide to flip a coin to reach a verdict, especially in a murder case when the defendant could face life in prison.

"It kind of blows your mind," he said. "I think they had a lapse in judgment, and I'd like to think it doesn't go on very often."

The jury was deadlocked 11-1 for murder and 11-1 for manslaughter. Melton said 10 jurors were willing to compromise. But one was unwilling to budge on manslaughter and another was steadfast for murder.

Then came the toss of a silver dollar.

Melton said in an interview that the jury had decided to convict, but couldn't agree on the charge. They wanted to avoid a mistrial, so they decided to flip a coin. Because all agreed on the coin toss, they thought it was legal and didn't know it was wrong, he said.

"Realistically, I didn't think we had anything to lose," Melton said. "We were going to be hung without it."

LOCAL COURT officials and law professors said they had never heard of a verdict reached this way, but noted that jury deliberations are secret. Some, however, said they weren't surprised to hear that it had happened.

"I don't think it's widespread," said Cedric Powell, an assistant law professor at the University of Louisville. "But I think the system breaks down sometimes. There are imperfections in the system. There are problems with the system. But it doesn't shake my faith in it."

He said Givens did not receive a fair trial because of the jury's actions.

Jurors take an oath to decide a case based on the evidence, and they are instructed to consider only the evidence.

"And it has to be a decision," Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Stengel said. "It can't be some kind of gamble."

Three of the jurors declined to comment after they were reached at home yesterday. The others could not be reached.

Butler said the family of the victim is devastated.

"They thought it was going to be over with, and now it's not," he said.

THE VICTIM'S three children, ages 8, 10 and 12, testified during the trial and must testify again, Butler said. The children were at home at 918 Read Alley on May 6, 1999, when their mother was shot in an upstairs bedroom. Briggs died at University of Louisville Hospital six days later.

Court documents indicate that Givens told police on the day of the shooting that it was an accident. He acknowledged that he and Briggs had argued that day, but he said the gun went off "accidentally." He said he was getting ready to clean the pistol and thought the safety was on.

He testified in his own defense at the two-day trial.

The jury deliberated for about six hours on Thursday and about three hours Friday. About 8:45 p.m. Thursday, after some four hours of deliberations, Melton told Conliffe in a note that the jurors were at an impasse. The note said they were "8-4 on two different rulings."

Conliffe told them to try again to reach a verdict.

THEY REPORTED their verdict about noon Friday.

They returned to court yesterday to consider recommending a sentence. Conliffe brought only the foreman into court to question him. The foreman confirmed the coin toss.

Chandler, Givens' attorney, said he had told the jurors that if they couldn't reach a verdict, it was acceptable.

"They didn't have to resort to this," he said.


-- Lynn Ratcliffe (mcgrew@ntr.net), April 26, 2000

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