FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) – A Broward County judge let a guilty verdict stand in the case of a Ft. Lauderdale businessman convicted of the death of a Miami Heat dancer, despite allegations there was an anti-gay bias.
Wednesday afternoon Mario Careaga, 46, was convicted of two counts of DUI manslaughter in the 2010 death of Nancy Lopez-Ruiz.
After the verdict was delivered on Wednesday afternoon, Judge Ilona Holmes decided not to formally accept it because of the anti-gay allegations and potential juror misconduct.
The judge and attorneys spent more than an hour Wednesday questioning each juror individually about any derogatory comments they may have made or heard from other jurors regarding Careaga’s lifestyle with his domestic partner.
“Did you hear anyone make a derogatory comments regarding Mr. Careaga or Mr. Stapleton or was their life style mentioning the word gay or homosexual or anything like that,” Defense attorney David Bogenschutz asked one of the jurors.
“No,” replied the juror.
On Thursday, the judge held a two hour hearing to decide whether the verdict would stand or a mistrial would be declared.
Defense attorney David Bogenschutz said the night the jury began deliberations, his office got a phone call from a dismissed alternate juror who said that during the trial one juror had made disparaging remarks about Careaga being a gay man.
“The defendant was testifying and had asked for a glass of water. That juror, Norman Sykes mocked the defendant’s voice in a sing-song, or falsetto, imitation. He was behind the witness and he saw ‘progressing behavior of disdain towards Mr. Careaga’.”
But the judge upheld the conviction.
“Although the juror’s behavior may have shown that they were frustrated or anxious to finish their task, nothing about their actions suggested that external sources affected the verdict or that it had been reached by some improper manner,” said Judge Ilona Holmes.
After court ended for the day, the victim’s mother, Adela Lopez clutched a homemade angel that Nancy gave her long ago. She said the verdict is justice.
“This is not going to bring Nancy back to us but this is going to us some kind of peace,” she said.
While the verdict stands, criminal defense attorney Frank Maister said Careaga may eventually get a new trial in a court of appeals.
“If the appeals court is satisfied that a juror came to a verdict based on homosexuality, race or gender, the appeals court would overturn that verdict.
It impugns the integrity of the criminal justice system,” said Maister.
Careaga was denied bond and is in jail.
His sentencing is set for May. His attorney said he will ask for the minimum sentence, which is four years.
He also plans to file an appeal of the verdict.
Nancy Lopez-Ruiz’s mother said this case sends a message of ‘don’t drink and drive.” “If you do there are consequences.”