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Dec. 9, 2019

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‘Scumbag’ comment gets juror removed in Pasco double-murder trial. Judge says it’s not her fault

Published: January 23, 2019, 9:03am

PASCO, Wa. — A relative of a Pasco homicide victim, who phoned a juror last week, admitted calling the accused killer a “scumbag” during the brief telephone conversation.

The relative was tracked down and interviewed by a defense investigator on Friday after the juror in Hector Orozco Jr.’s double-murder trial told court officials about the phone call.

On Tuesday, attorney Daniel Stovern renewed his claim of jury tampering based on the conversation between “Juror No. 13” and the relative of Bonnie D. Ross.

In addition to using what Stovern said was a “pejorative term” to describe Orozco, the relative told the juror — who was a longtime friend — “that she knew she probably shouldn’t be calling, but she did,” according to defense investigator Jeffrey Porteous.

Judge Bruce Spanner decided that the call disqualifies the juror from continuing on the case.

Her dismissal Tuesday came at the same time another juror revealed a sudden hardship with childcare.

“Juror No. 4,” who has a 1-year-old at home and is pregnant with her second, said her mother now has the flu and can’t babysit until she recovers.

The juror’s husband recently started a new job and is trying to save his limited vacation day for paternity leave, so she reached out to her church but doesn’t know if anyone can help.

Spanner recognized that the whole situation is stressing out the mother.

He said if she can find a babysitter she trusts, then she can show up Wednesday morning and continue with her jury duty. But if she is “unsuccessful in moving heaven and earth,” then the court will understand her absence and excuse her from the rest of the trial.

The trial was expected to last three weeks. Attorneys selected 14 jurors for the panel, with two people to be randomly chosen as alternates before deliberations begin.

With the dismissal of Juror No. 13 and the possible release of Juror No. 4, the court could be left with no alternate jurors with at least 1 1/2 weeks of testimony to go.

Orozco, 43, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with seven crimes from Valentine’s Day 2018, including two counts of murder for Ross and Demetrius A. Graves.

Five people took the witness stand Tuesday, including victims Mary Gibson and Anthony Nugent who say Orozco assaulted them after the couple agreed to let him stay in their motel room for a night.

The defense on Friday tried to get a mistrial declared after Juror No. 13 disclosed the phone call from her friend and former co-worker.

The friend told her, “I hear you’re on the jury of the guy who killed my great-nephew’s wife’s grandma.” The juror said she immediately told her friend to “Stop talking!”

But when Porteous testified Tuesday that the friend admitted calling the juror even though she knew she shouldn’t, and then referred to Orozco as a scumbag and the killer, the defense said it was appropriate to excuse the juror.

Prosecutor Shawn Sant said he did not object to the defense motion because he wanted to “err on the side of caution.”

Spanner said it may have been an innocent inquiry between friends, but then add in the relative’s opinion “in a very strong language” and it becomes something different than what was described by the juror Friday.

Tuesday, the jury had already been released for the day and was not in the courtroom for the discussion.

Spanner suggested having a court clerk call the juror to let her know she had been excused. But defense attorney Peyman Younesi questioned if the woman had talked with her fellow jurors about the call, potentially tainting others.

And the judge wondered if other jurors might read about the issue in the Herald and “somehow taint the process beforehand.”

They settled on calling her to see if she was able to return immediately to the courtroom to be questioned. She did and she told them she didn’t tell the other jurors about the phone call or why she was called into the courtroom.

Spanner told the woman it was an extraordinary situation. “I’m sorry about this,” she said.

The judge told her it wasn’t her fault, and that he had been thrilled to hear the juror took his instructions seriously by telling her friend to stop discussing the case.

“I can sleep in tomorrow,” the juror said as she left the courtroom.