Two guys in a jail cell hatch a plan. One is awaiting sentencing for a murder. The other is awaiting trial for two slayings.
Their plot, according to authorities?
Let’s get to a juror with an offer. Money upfront. Another payment at delivery of a not-guilty verdict.
Call it the layaway juror.
Small problem: The juror, who is 19, didn’t go along with the script. He showed up Monday to the double-murder trial of Marcus Short, 28, and asked his fellow jurors if any of them had gotten a strange friend request on Facebook, complete with a photo of the defendant.
That sparked an Omaha police investigation — and it prompted the judge, with the approval of prosecutors and the defense, to declare a mistrial Tuesday at the beginning of what was supposed to be Short’s monthlong double-murder trial.
One of the people accused in the scheme: Short himself. Another: his cellmate at the Douglas County Jail, Adrian Ixta, awaiting sentencing for the murder of Billy Walker. Yet another: a friend of Short’s, Davaughn Perkins, who was in the courtroom as the trial began.
All are accused of jury tampering — a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. Authorities say three other people could face the same charge, as well.
The case involves the most brazen and bizarre tampering allegations that two veteran courthouse attorneys say they’ve seen.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine and Short’s attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley — who both are in their fourth decade at the Douglas County Courthouse — said they couldn’t recall anything approaching these allegations.
Authorities believe that the conspirators may have tried to contact two or three jurors.
Kleine declined to detail the investigation. But he said officers were working furiously to unearth who was involved.
“It’s maddening,” Kleine said. “This is about the integrity of the process. It makes me very angry to see someone try to compromise the system. ... To me, it’s so important that we send a message that this is not going to happen.”
In an exclusive interview with The World-Herald, the 19-year-old juror explained what happened to him.
The young man, who had never been on a jury, had sat through five days of jury questioning in Short’s case. Attorneys had questioned potential jurors on what they knew about the case and whether they had read any pretrial publicity. Short and a co-defendant, Preston Pope, are accused of killing Deprecia Neelon and Garion Johnson in August 2015 as part of a series of retaliatory shootings within the same Omaha gang.
The case had drawn headlines over extensive delays by Omaha police homicide detectives in turning over evidence and reports — some delays were as long as 2½ years. A police sergeant and two detectives were reassigned following the revelations — and Short’s attorney requested that the case be dismissed.
Judge Horacio Wheelock refused to do so but ordered the two sides to work tirelessly to try to make sure Short, who has been in jail since August 2015, could go to trial this month.
Last week, about 100 jurors were questioned over their knowledge of the case and whether they could commit four weeks of their lives to their civic duty. The 19-year-old college student was among the dozen jurors and three alternates who made the cut.
Over the weekend, he opened up Facebook and saw a friend request. He said it was from a Facebook page that purported to belong to Short or his supporters. He clicked on the page to see Short’s picture but noted that it didn’t appear to be Short’s personal page.
The juror refused to accept the friend request.
Monday, he arrived to the jury room and told his fellow jurors and court staff about the strange Facebook message. That led attorneys to begin an inquiry about the nature of the contact — and Omaha police to launch an investigation.
Tuesday, he found out that there was more to the story.
“It’s not every day that you get to tell your mom, ‘Hey there was a mistrial because they were trying to bribe me,’ ” he said.
Jurors have long been concerned that the jury selection process could expose their home addresses, and this case is no exception. Court officials distribute rosters of potential jurors to attorneys. Upon completion of jury selection, Clerk John Friend and his staff seize those rosters and seal them.
On Tuesday, Friend said his office is committed to ensuring that no one contacts jurors during trial. One caveat: Jury selection — where potential jurors introduce themselves and answers questions — occurs in open court. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that such questioning of potential jurors is public.
The allegations have Kleine calling for stiffer penalties for jury tampering. And prosecutors are now exploring whether they could use evidence of jury tampering as an indication of Short’s guilt in the killings. After dismissing jurors on Tuesday, Judge Wheelock reset the trial for January. A new jury will be selected.
On Tuesday, several wide-eyed jurors filed out of the courthouse, four weeks ahead of when they thought they would be done with the case. All carried jury certificates. One shook his head. One wore a Green Day concert T-shirt that perhaps was fitting for Tuesday’s allegations: “American Idiot,” it said.
And one left with a whale of a story for his mom.
“Wait a second,” the 19-year-old juror said, pausing on the steps of the courthouse. “If they did try to bribe (a juror), doesn’t that pretty much say that they’re guilty?”