FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DETROIT – Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) is calling for an investigation into an apparent jury tampering incident involving a Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) detective and a sitting juror who texted each other during deliberations in a criminal trial, according to the detective’s court testimony. The ACLU sent a letter, with the corresponding testimony transcript, to the Grand Rapids Office of Oversight and Public Accountability and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights urging an investigation to determine whether appropriate discipline if any was imposed and to develop policy and officer training to ensure similar incidents do not happen again.
This incident occurred on Dec. 4, 2019 after a jury had begun deliberations in a criminal case in the 17th Circuit Court. GRPD Detective Robert James Zabriskie and a sitting juror texted about another juror who apparently did not want to vote guilty during deliberations. According to court testimony, Det. Zabriskie texted the juror that “we need good people to show up and say they don’t have a preconceived notions about guilt or innocence, and then, find the defendant guilty. Duh.”
“It is a serious threat to our legal system for an active member of law enforcement to directly communicate with a sitting juror about a case, let alone during deliberations,” said Elaine Lewis, ACLU of Michigan attorney. “There is no excuse for this abuse of power and lack of respect for the sworn oath of a juror whose duties and deliberation are sacrosanct.”
The trial impacted by this incident involved an accusation of drug possession with intent to distribute. According to the defense attorney the case is expected to be retried. The jury was majority white with one Black juror.
The court testimony shows that Det. Zabriskie also introduced race into the texting exchange. When the sitting juror commented about the dissenting juror being “obnoxious” and emotional, Det. Zabriskie texted, “is this a black lady?” Upon learning the dissenting juror was Black, he went further to advocate that the dissenting juror be expelled.
“A police detective pushing for the expulsion of a Black juror on the basis of their race is discrimination, it’s dangerous, and it’s wrong,” said Anthony Greene, an ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney who co-authored the letter. “A police detective texting a sitting juror is a threat to the criminal legal system as a whole."
Det. Zabriskie has been with the GRPD for more than 24 years and also serves as an instructor. The ACLU asks both the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the Grand Rapids Office of Oversight and Public Accountability to review this incident and recommend further actions, including whether any discipline that was imposed on the detective was appropriate and what policy and procedure changes, as well as training for the GRPD, are necessary to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
The ACLU sent an updated letter to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability upon learning that the Kent County Prosecutor had referred this incident to the Ottawa County Prosecutor, and that there was some form of internal investigation by the GRPD.