A federal judge on Friday ordered a new trial for a former executive of Beazer Homes USA because two jurors Googled information about a legal term and one shared her findings during deliberations.
The unraveling of Michael Rand’s conviction is a setback for the government.
After being accused of soft-pedaling its investigation into Beazer’s reckless loan practices, the U.S. Attorney’s Office publicized Rand’s conviction in 2011 as an important victory in its efforts to root out corporate corruption.
Rand, 51, had just come out of temple Friday, celebrating Rosh Hashanah, when his attorney called. Rand assumed he wanted to wish him a Happy Jewish New Year. Instead, he shared the news.
“I’m anxious for the next step,” said Rand, who faced up to 125 years in prison.
Rand worked as Beazer’s chief accounting officer in its headquarters in Atlanta. He was convicted on seven counts, including securities fraud, conspiracy to commit securities fraud, mail and wire fraud conspiracy, obstruction of justice and destruction of records.
During the trial, as is customary, Chief U.S. District Judge Bob Conrad instructed jurors not do any research about the case and told them their verdicts should be based solely on evidence presented in court. He told them not to read or listen to any news accounts of the trial.
In December 2011, two months after Rand was convicted, he filed a motion for a new trial alleging that a juror told a member of his defense team about possible misconduct.
Conrad summoned the jurors back to court in July and questioned them one at a time. Two jurors admitted they Googled the legal term “reasonable doubt” during a particularly difficult time in their four days of deliberations. Juror Twelve, who has not been publicly identified, said she showed the definition to other jurors.
The term “reasonable doubt” is important because the government must prove every element of a criminal charge “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Juror Twelve also admitted that prior to deliberations she read two newspaper articles related to the case, one about the charges Rand faced and the other about communities affected by foreclosure.
The case followed a 2007 Observer series showing that Beazer, then a major Charlotte-area homebuilder, violated federal lending rules and arranged larger loans than some customers could afford. The company and two top executives escaped prosecution by paying back millions of dollars. The only other person charged was Janette Parker, who managed the Beazer Mortgage office in Charlotte. She pleaded guilty to three counts of mortgage fraud and is on probation.
Conrad ordered Rand’s case set for a new trial the week of Oct. 7. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment.