A Miami man is walking free on a murder charge after an appeals court ruled Wednesday that a judge improperly declared a mistrial when she discovered two jurors in the case were actually siblings.
In his second trial, Dwaine Merchant, 34, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
But the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that the original mistrial was a mistake and Merchant could not be retried for the murder because it would violate the constitutional ban on “double jeopardy,” or being tried for the same crime twice. The appellate court tossed the murder conviction.
He was accused of gunning down a woman’s lover, Ian Bain, 31, in February 2007.
Merchant, who is in a state prison in Crawfordville, could be released in the coming days. It is unknown whether the State Attorney’s Office will appeal the decision.
At Merchant’s first trial in August 2013, Miami-Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez declared a mistrial as jurors were deliberating. The reason: The court discovered that two jurors were brother and sister — something the siblings apparently never disclosed to the lawyers in the case.
Their relationship did not come to light until one of the jurors, an alternate who heard the evidence but was dismissed before deliberating, was found waiting in the courtroom hallway. He told a bailiff he was waiting for his sister to finish with deliberations to give her a ride home.
Tinkler Mendez called the relationship a “huge problem” because the siblings could have “tainted” the case by prematurely discussing the evidence before deliberations.
Tinkler Mendez decided to declare a mistrial. Prosecutors agreed. Merchant, however, did not agree — though he did not object.
The appeals court ruled that Tinkler Mendez was too quick to declare a mistrial, not properly questioning the jurors about whether they discussed the case with each other.