Judge asks jurors in 1985 murder case about bias allegations

Darrell Jones confers with his lawyer during Tuesday's hearing.

FALL RIVER — More than 30 years after a Plymouth County jury found 19-year-old Darrell Jones guilty of a Brockton murder, three jurors appeared in court Tuesday to answer allegations that the conviction may have been tainted by racism.

The highly unusual hearing marked what appears to be the first time a Massachusetts jury had been summoned back to court, following a March US Supreme Court ruling finding that a trial judge must pry into jury deliberations — typically kept secret — if there is evidence of racial bias.

Last month, Superior Court Justice Thomas McGuire Jr. summoned jurors in the 1985 case after allegations from one member of the all-white panel. That juror, Eleanor Urbati, asserted that two members of the jury said on the first day of deliberations that they thought Jones was guilty because he was black.

Her allegations were first aired in a 2016 investigative report on Jones’s innocent plea published by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and WBUR publc radio.

Jones was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has maintained his innocence in the death of alleged Cuban cocaine dealer Guillermo Rodriguez, and in 2015 he filed a motion to reopen his conviction.

On Tuesday, the jurors, one limping and barely able to walk, told McGuire they couldn’t remember whether or not bias was present in their deliberations. Too much time had passed, they said.

“I don’t remember, I don’t remember anything,’’ said Maureen Bates, the first juror to testify during the hearing. “I think it’s [been] too long.”

Urbati, 81, did not attend the hearing. Contacted Tuesday evening at home, the Hingham woman said she never received the summons and would have showed up if asked. Urbati has said she was the last holdout and that she regrets succumbing to pressure to convict him.

“I remember that distinctly. They had him guilty right from the beginning because he was black,’’ she said. “I am old but I am not stupid.”

McGuire is considering whether to solicit more input from jurors before ruling on Jones’s motion.

Jones alleges that police tampered with a videotaped interview of a key witness shown at his trial to remove evidence that could prove his innocence. He also said that his lawyer, now deceased, failed to adequately represent him by, among other things, forcing him to sit in a so-called “prisoner’s dock” 10 feet behind him, rather than beside him.

Jessica Kenny, a Plymouth County assistant district attorney, said Tuesday that Jones has not presented any new evidence to prove his innocence, and she urged McGuire to reject his motion.

The Supreme Court’s decision involved the case of Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez, a Colorado man who appealed his 2007 conviction for unlawful sexual contact after learning a juror had said he thought Pena Rodriguez was guilty because he was Mexican and “Mexican men take whatever they want.”

McGuire, who is now presiding in Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River, is hearing Jones’s case because he was seated in Plymouth when the motion was first filed. He said in court that he was “required” to question jurors after being made aware of allegations of racial bias, following the top court ruling and a similar 2010 holding from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

McGuire said the courts have ruled that although juror deliberations should be private and confidential, questions of racial bias must be addressed.

“This is a very unusual situation,’’ he told the jurors. “I just want to find out what the truth is.” McGuire said the court had attempted to reach all the jurors but wasn’t sure if all of them had been contacted.

Pamela Wood, the state’s jury commissioner, said she had never heard of jurors being asked to discuss their deliberations decades after a conviction. “To bring in jurors, I’m not aware of that happening,’’ she said. “I have faith in the court system and the judge if they made the determination this is the effective way to make a decision.”

At the same time, “memories fade,” she said. Howard Friedman, a Boston civil rights attorney, said the hearing was remarkable, but questioned whether jurors would remember bias after so much time. Yet he praised the judge for taking the allegations seriously.

“Fairness should have no time limit,” he said.

During the nine-day trial, prosecutors provided no motive and no physical evidence linking him to the crime. None of the eyewitnesses testified they were sure Jones was the shooter. Jones, who sat with his lawyers during testimony, made an emotional plea at the end of the hearing for the judge to rule on his motion quickly. He said previous hearings on his case had already established his right to a new trial.

Pointing to relatives in the room, including his 73-year-old mother, who had traveled to Massachusetts from Virginia, Jones said he was ready for a decision.

“I don’t want to wait another week. I don’t want to wait another day,’’ he said. And speaking to his family, feeling vindicated that he had proved his case: “Even if we lost, we won.”

This story co-published with the Boston Globe. Read more in this series from NECIR.