‘Death by Instagram’ tainted jury pool, lawyers say

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit – A four-day series examining the racketeering conspiracy case against the Seven Mile Bloods gang tainted the jury pool, defense lawyers argued Monday.

The “Death by Instagram” series published by The Detroit News was prejudicial and included so many details about a rare case involving the death penalty that U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh should order separate trials for several defendants facing lesser charges, defense lawyers argued.

The unsuccessful arguments were aired during a routine pretrial conference that turned into an airing of grievances following publication of an in-depth series about the east-side gang. The Seven Mile Bloods are blamed for terrorizing neighbors, fueling the nation’s opioid epidemic and assassinating rivals targeted on Instagram hit lists.

The hearing Monday came more than a month after the first wave of trials against four members and associates of the gang ended with an acquittal and a hung jury for three defendants. A second wave of trials is scheduled for June 5 in federal court.

“This is an absolute disaster. My client cannot go to trial ... in this environment. The taint for the jury pool is unacceptable,” said lawyer William Swor, who represents defendant James “Wick” Robinson. “‘Death by Instagram’ is not something jurors are likely to forget.”

The Seven Mile Bloods participated in more than 14 shootings, at least four homicides, 11 attempted murders and drug crimes that eroded the quality of life on the gang’s home turf, known by locals as The Red Zone, according to the government.

More than a dozen defendants are awaiting trial in the Seven Mile Bloods case.

The Justice Department, so far, has signaled it will pursue the death penalty upon conviction of one accused leader of the gang, Billy Arnold. A decision regarding four other men is pending.

Several defense lawyers pushed to have their clients tried separately from those facing possible death sentences.

“These articles had an extremely prejudicial effect on him and his ability to be tried at this time,” said lawyer Henry Scharg, who represents defendant Detroit resident Eugene “Fist” Fisher.

Fisher is charged with attempted murder and accused of storing an AR-15-style weapon linked to three shootings and two homicides.

A decision on pursuing the death penalty against defendants Corey Bailey, Keithon Porter, Robert Brown and Arlandis Shy is expected by May 10, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Graveline told the judge Monday.

The men, like Arnold, would stand trial separately if the government decides to pursue the death penalty.

On Monday, Shy’s lawyer Mark Magidson held aloft a copy of the “Death by Instagram” series in court and complained that one article mentioned his client’s criminal record.

“It leads somebody to think he must be the worst person around,” the lawyer said.

The series, which outlined how the FBI and Detroit Police used social media posts and crime-scene evidence in an attempt to topple the gang, gave the government a “tactical advantage,” Magidson said.

The series drew a wide following, lawyers said, citing encounters with people who talked about the articles in church, at an area gym and downtown office building.

“It resonated with people,” Magidson said.

The judge questioned whether the series would impact the jury pool.

Steeh pointed to several high-profile, federal criminal trials in Detroit in recent years, including the racketeering case against former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the terrorism trial of “Underwear Bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

The trials showed a jury can be empaneled despite extensive media coverage, the judge said.

Prospective jurors in the Kilpatrick case were questioned extensively about exposure to media reports about the former mayor’s tenure and misdeeds.

More than half of the nearly 500 prospective jurors in the City Hall corruption case were dismissed, most because they said they could not be fair to the ex-mayor and his co-defendants.

Many prospective jurors wrote in jury questionnaires that they had a positive opinion of the former mayor and believed he had been treated unfairly by the media. And a “fair number” of jurors said they had heard nothing about the City Hall corruption case, Kilpatrick’s trial judge, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, said at the time.

In the Seven Mile Bloods case, Steeh said he would support an extensive jury questionnaire to probe exposure to “Death by Instagram” and awareness of the Seven Mile Bloods.

“With the number of defendants and the complexity of the case, it seems that if you read (the series) three times, and carefully read it three times, after the passage of days, you could not name a person or attribute specific behaviors,” the judge said.

Scharg partially agreed.

“Whoever reads it won’t remember names or events but they will remember the Seven Mile Bloods being bad, dangerous dudes,” Scharg said.

Defense lawyers might be allowed to examine prospective jurors’ social media accounts to determine if any posted links to “Death by Instagram” or commented about the series.

A questionnaire for prospective jurors also might be tweaked to ask additional questions about knowledge of the case. And jurors might be isolated while being asked additional questions about the case and media coverage.


Twitter: @robertsnellnews