Houston County school bus driver allowed new trial for deadly crash

Charges stem from a January 2018 bus accident in Houston County.
Harris Web

WARNER ROBINS, Georgia (41NBC/WMGT) – The Georgia Supreme Court rules a Houston County school bus driver should get a new trial due to juror misconduct.

In 2019, a jury found bus driver Shalita Jackson Harris guilty of homicide by vehicle in the first degree and reckless driving. The charges stem from a January 2018 bus accident where six-year-old student Arlana Haynes was thrown from the bus and later died.

According to court documents, Harris filed a motion for a new trial, claiming jurors engaged in misconduct during deliberations. The appeal claims that jury members Googled the available sentences for her charges. During an appeal hearing, two jurors testified that, during deliberations they Googled the difference between first- and second-degree homicide by vehicle. And one of the jurors testified that she shared her research with other jurors.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision and denied Harris’ motion for a new trial. However, in an unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court “erred in failing to accord a presumption of prejudice to Harris upon its finding that jurors engaged in improper extrajudicial research with the potential to deprive Harris of due process.”

“For nearly 50 years now, Georgia courts have routinely instructed jurors that they ‘are only concerned with the guilt or innocence of the defendant’ and ‘are not to concern selves with punishment,’” Justice Verda M. Colvin writes. “The concern with injecting sentencing considerations into the guilt-innocence phase of a trial is that, if the jury can ‘discern what sentence(s) the defendant on trial is facing,’ it might ‘use that knowledge to fashion a verdict that will result in the sentence the jury wishes to see imposed upon the defendant being tried,’ rather than deciding the defendant’s guilt or innocence based on the evidence and underlying substantive law provided by the court.”

The high court also concluded that the trial court applied the wrong standard of proof in assessing prejudice. And the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that a juror’s obtaining extrajudicial sentencing information is always harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

The high court’s decision now sends Harris’ case back to the trial court for further consideration of her motion for a new trial under the correct legal test.

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