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Juror’s Facebook posts could affect $2 million jury verdict (UPDATE)

Former Milwaukee police officer Michael Vagnini looks at the bailiffs as they come to handcuff him following his sentencing June 21 before Circuit Judge Jeffrey Wagner in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Former Milwaukee police officer Michael Vagnini looks at bailiffs as they handcuff him following his sentencing on June 21 in Milwaukee. (AP File Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

A $2 million verdict in a federal lawsuit over illegal strip searches may be thrown out, and the entire case may have to be retried.

Willie Newman had alleged in a civil rights suit filed in 2015 that the former Milwaukee police officer Michael Vagnini had illegally strip-searched him in 2010 and that his fellow officers, Jeffrey Cline and Paul Martinez, knew the search was improper and had failed to stop it.

Last month, jurors handed up the $2 million verdict against the officers.

But now the city’s lawyers are questioning the validity of that verdict because of a juror’s Facebook posts, asking Federal District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller to question the jurors under oath, according to court filings first reported on by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The city says the jury may have been improperly influenced by outside evidence. That conclusion was reached in part from a review of jurors’ public Facebook posts. The review found that one juror had discussed the case with a third party and researched awards for damages in similar trials after being sworn in and before jury deliberations began.

After the verdict, the juror also agreed with a Facebook follower, C.M., that because of his research and knowledge of psychology, the juror might be a Supreme Court justice one day, according to court documents.

C.M. had posted that the juror “researched the payouts of similar cases” and had “a psychology background and can tell when people are b.s.ing.”

Also, during jury deliberations, the same juror posted a Facebook status saying that the juror would “always defend those (who need) help expressing themselves” and the juror was “an advocate” and “bridge.”

The city also noted that the juror shared an anti-police activist’s post.

Milwaukee city lawyers contend that the posts suggest the jury may have considered evidence other than that presented at trial and that the juror was biased against the officers. They are asking Stadtmueller to question the jurors and C.M. under oath.

If Stadtmueller finds that the Facebook posts show the jury was influenced by outside evidence that affected the officer’s right to a fair trial, he may choose to throw out the verdict. It’s also grounds for the officers to ask for a new trial, though they have not yet said that they will ask for that.

When the validity of a verdict is in question, federal rules prohibit jurors from testifying about their deliberations. The exception to the rules apply in cases when outside information that is brought to a juror’s attention affects a party’s right to a fair trial.

About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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