Death Penalty Appeal Hinges On Alleged Juror Misconduct

JUROR CLAIMED AFTER TRIAL TO KNOWING DEFENDANT WAS CONVICTED OF ANOTHER MURDER

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(Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

A man sentenced to death in 2017 for the 2005 murders of six members of a Yuma family will be transferred off death row later this year to attend a hearing on whether he is entitled to a new trial because at least one juror knew the defendant was previously convicted of an unrelated murder.

Preston Alton Strong must be transported to the Yuma County Superior Court from death row at the Arizona State Prison Complex – Eyman in Florence for the Dec. 7 hearing, according to Judge Brandon Kinsey. The hearing is the result of a direct appeal heard earlier this year by the Arizona Supreme Court.

Strong, 54, was convicted in 2012 of committing the 2007 murder of a Yuma doctor. But when a jury was selected in January 2017 for a trial on charges Strong murdered four children and two adults in 2005 at least one empaneled juror -referred to only as Juror 47- knew of Strong’s involvement in the doctor’s murder even though the trial judge wanted to keep such persons off the jury.

On May 26, Chief Justice Robert Brutinel authored a supreme court decision which agreed with Strong’s court-appointed appellate attorney that a hearing is necessary to determine if juror misconduct, even if unintentional, prejudiced Strong’s constitutional right to a fair trial.

Read more by Terri Jo Neff >>

Kinsey must determine at the Dec. 7 evidentiary hearing whether Juror 47’s knowledge was harmless or if a new trial is required. The burden is on the prosecutor with the Yuma County Attorney’s Office to show there was no harm done.

The other case Juror 47 knew about was the murder of 62-year-old Dr. Satinder Gill who was found the evening of Nov. 2, 2007 headfirst in his filled bathtub with two belts around his neck. The doctor died of asphyxia due to ligature strangulation and blunt trauma to the head, and had numerous broken bones.

According to the autopsy, Gill was likely killed about 24 hours earlier. That matched evidence showing Gill asked a friend on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 2007 to pick up a $24,000 check from under his door mat and cash it at his bank. It was a “family emergency,” Gill told the friend.

The bank paid out the money in bundles of mostly $50 bills wrapped in purple money bands. The friend took the money to Gill’s house, but she was not allowed inside, instead handing the cash to the doctor through the door. Gill then no-showed for dinner that evening with the friend, who called police the next day when Gill had not returned several calls.

Police received a tip from Strong’s then-girlfriend that he may have been involved in the murder. The girlfriend, who worked in Gill’s medical office, told investigators Strong had given her $9,500 earlier that day which he would not account for.

In addition, Strong owed a large amount of restitution in a criminal matter which could have sent him to prison if not paid soon. Security video from a local store showed Strong purchasing $4,300 in money orders with $50 bills.

Even though Strong was indicted for Gill’s murder in April 2008 he did not stand trial until July 2012.  The county attorney’s office gave notice it intended to seek the death penalty, but the prosecutor agreed to drop the death penalty if Strong waived his right to a jury trial.

A Yuma County Superior Court judge presided over a 34-day trial and returned guilty verdicts on all counts including first-degree premeditated murder. Strong was later sentenced to natural life in prison for the murder, to be followed by 22 more years for kidnapping, armed robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, and attempted arson.

The arson charge stems from the fact all the gas stove’s burners were turned on in Gill’s kitchen where several lit candles were burning.

Shortly after Gill’s murder police named Strong as a person of interest in the June 24, 2005 murders of Luis Rios, Adrienne Heredia, and four children. Rios and a six-year-old boy were shot to death, while Heredia and the other three children died of asphyxiation.

Strong finally went on trial for the 2005 murders in March 2017. Most of the questions posed to prospective jurors involved their knowledge of the 2005 murders and Strong.

Juror 47 made it onto the jury panel even though she admitted seeing old media coverage about the 2005 murders. She also admitted hearing about Strong being charged with the murders. But at the time she did not reveal her knowledge about Strong’s conviction for Gill’s murder.

In a post-verdict interview, Juror 47 explained she didn’t bring up the Gill case during juror questioning because neither the prosecutor, defense attorney, nor judge specifically asked about it. The juror’s statement wasn’t enough for a Yuma County judge to grant Strong’s motion for a new trial.

The judge also denied Strong’s request for an evidentiary hearing on the matter. But that, according to the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision, was the wrong answer.

“In this case, because Strong established the presumption of prejudice, but it is unclear from the existing record whether he, in fact, suffered prejudice, Strong is entitled to an evidentiary hearing,” the decision states.