HOUSTON — A murder trial was almost over Wednesday as defendant Itani Mellini and others heard from a final witness.
“Itani Mellini is accused of murdering his estranged wife,” defense attorney Sean Buckley said.
That’s when Buckley said he learned details of an event held last week just across the street.
"It violated our client’s right to a fair and impartial jury,” Buckley said.
The Jury Appreciation Week event was organized by Harris County District Clerk Marilyn Burgess. Her office shared tweets from the event which included comments from law enforcement, judges and at least two reporters.
Some of them spoke about the importance of getting justice for victims’ families.
"And we learned that our jury came from a jury pool that had been brought over by Marilyn Burgess after conducting what I would term as a pep rally for victim’s rights,” Buckley said.
He and his co-counsel argued that some comments potentially prejudiced the jury.
Judge Te’iva Bell bought it and issued an order for a mistrial.
"Because these jurors are hearing things and they’re being potentially influenced before they have an opportunity to come up to the courtroom,” attorney Gary Tabakman said.
In a statement, Burgess’s office explained that Jury Appreciation Week is an annual event that honors jurors and their service.
“Guest speakers invited ... volunteer their time and are solely for inspiration and entertainment," the statement included. "The remarks made by the guest speakers are their own.”
Burgess’s office did not say why a number of social media posts from the event were later deleted.
"It was clearly inappropriate," Buckley said. "And I’m frankly shocked and disappointed that Marilyn Burgess would think that this was in any way acceptable and that we wouldn’t find out.”
Buckley sent a certified letter to Burgess on Thursday afternoon seeking more than $433,000 in legal fees on behalf of his client because of the way his trial ended.
Further action may be considered after 14 days.
Full statement from District Clerk Marilyn Burgess's office:
"Jury Appreciation Week is a nationally recognized event that has been held by the Harris County District Clerk’s Office since 2009.
"The purpose of Jury Appreciation Week is to honor jurors and tell them how important their participation is in the American justice system.
"Guest speakers invited to Jury Appreciation Week volunteer their time and are solely for inspiration and entertainment. The remarks made by the guest speakers are their own."