by BOB EGELKO
May 24, 2013
MADERA COUNTY (SFGATE) - Michael Pizarro may or may not have sexually assaulted and murdered his 13-year-old half-sister in Madera County in 1989. Two juries have found him guilty in verdicts that have been overturned on appeal. Pizarro’s wife said she saw him near the child in a field shortly before she was killed. He was linked to the crime by DNA evidence, which was challenged by the defense but has been ruled admissible. On the other hand, the prosecution’s case was far from airtight. The last jury took six days to convict him after reporting two deadlocks. Pizarro had gotten along well with the victim and had no apparent motive to kill her. And a witness reported that another man, whose pickup truck had been seen nearby, confessed to the murder in 1997 and killed himself a week later.
If Pizarro is tried for a third time, though, it seems safe to predict that his new jury will do a better job following the rules than the last one.
According to his lawyer, Cliff Gardner, the defense learned after Pizarro’s second trial that two of the jurors were brother and sister, two others were employer and employee and more than one juror had a felony record, facts they didn’t disclose during the trial.
The reason for the latest reversal was none of those, but instead some unauthorized online research by Juror No. 9 — conduct that a state appeals court said “made a mockery of the trial” and should have been criminally prosecuted.
Pizarro, who was then about 20, was convicted of sexually molesting and murdering 13-year-old Amber Dawn Barfield, who was beaten and suffocated near her home town of North Fork. His wife said he had left a party that night after an argument with her, she drove with Amber to look for him, and she last saw the girl as she was approaching Pizarro in a field. Pizarro denied killing Amber, but was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to life without parole, and has remained in prison during two appeals court reversals and a second trial that also ended in a conviction.
At the retrial, according to this week’s ruling by the Fifth District Court of Appeal, Juror No. 9 decided he wanted more information, so he first read a newspaper article about the case and then looked up the appeals court’s 2002 ruling that overturned Pizarro’s first conviction.
That ruling told him many things the jurors weren’t supposed to know: that Pizarro had been convicted and sentenced to life, that he had testified at his first trial, that he had been drinking and told an investigator that alcohol made him violent, and that the court that overturned his conviction because of misleading testimony about the DNA evidence had nevertheless observed that prosecutors presented a “strong circumstantial case” against him.
The trial judge had given all the jurors the customary instruction to rely on the evidence they heard in the courtroom and not to do their own research. Juror No. 9, who acknowledged his disobedience in a post-trial hearing, picked up to “extraneous information” that was “harmful and perhaps devastating to the defense,” the court said in a 3-0 ruling. And although the state Supreme Court has ruled that a juror’s exposure to unauthorized evidence is not ordinarily grounds for overturning a conviction, the appellate court said the evidence in this case was so damaging that it must have affected the juror’s judgment and tainted the verdict.
Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office, which represented the prosecution, said it is reviewing the decision, which it could appeal to the state’s high court. The lengthy ruling can be viewed here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/F057722A.PDF.