Criminal courts

Accidental juror leads to mistrial in Miami-Dade rape case

 
 
Baxter Tisdale
Baxter Tisdale

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

Jury selection was complete. The judge read aloud the names of the citizens selected to decide the fate of Baxter Tisdale.

“Acosta,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas said. In the fast-moving hubbub of rejected jurors leaving the courtroom Wednesday, a woman named Gricel Acosta stepped forward to serve.

One day later, she was the foreperson on the six-member jury that convicted Tisdale of raping two women in 1986. But when the judge polled the jurors after the verdict, the lawyers realized something had gone very wrong: Gricel was the wrong Acosta.

In fact, defense lawyers had stricken Gricel Acosta from the panel, though she didn’t know. It was a man, Neftali Acosta, who was supposed to have served on the jury. But he left along with the other rejected potential jurors.

“No one noticed,” defense lawyer Christian Dunham said.

The strange legal saga ended Friday morning when the judge declared a mistrial. Tisdale, however, won’t be getting a new shot at freedom.

Instead, he accepted a plea deal. Nine years in prison. He had faced up to 22 years behind bars if convicted of armed sexual battery.

“We don’t want the victims to have to testify in a new trial,” said Miami-Dade prosecutor Natalie Snyder. “They want to put this behind them.”

Tisdale, 51, was arrested last year after Miami-Dade police cold-case detectives linked him through DNA to the separate rapes of two women, who were attacked by a knife-wielding intruder in the Southridge neighborhood.

After they were shown photo lineups, the women recalled Tisdale from the neighborhood.

Tisdale hailed from Miami-Dade but had moved to Rock Hill, S.C., where he had been an unsuccessful fringe political candidate in recent years, even running for mayor.

At trial, Tisdale took the stand to claim the women consented to the encounters. No dice. After a 19-witness trial over two days, jurors took just over an hour to convict him.

But when the jury error was discovered, Judge Thomas held off on declaring Tisdale guilty until lawyers researched their next moves. Thomas, who has been nominated for the federal bench, has been in the news in recent weeks because Sen. Marco Rubio, a political opponent of President Obama, is holding up the judge’s confirmation.

“I apologize to all of you,” Thomas told the lawyers in the case Friday.

Though extremely rare, accidental jurors have served before.

Take the case of Travis James, convicted of fatally shooting a man in a botched robbery outside a Lauderhill Monster Burger restaurant. At the end of jury selection in 1999, a court deputy called out “Mr. Burns” — a Frederick Burtz responded, while the real juror, Robert Burns, left.

Burtz wound up as the foreman, believing the whole time that the judge was merely mispronouncing his name.

James was convicted and is doing life in prison. A Broward appeals court refused to reverse the conviction, saying there was no evidence of jury misconduct and James had received a fair trial.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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