Judge declares mistrial after juror recants not guilty verdict

CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. — The wife of a murdered man says race played a part in a predominantly African American jury finding the man who shot her husband not guilty.

Diana Hernandez is thankful a white juror refused to go along and that caused a mistrial.

Eric Lydell Smith faced nine counts, including malice murder, felony murder and aggravated assault in connection with the death of Eric Hernandez. Smith and Hernandez were long-time neighbors.

During Smith's trial in Clayton County Chief Superior Court Judge Albert Collier's court, it appeared Smith had beaten the charges.

"Not guilty of malice murder," the jury foreman read from a verdict form. Hernandez' family began to cry in court after they heard one not guilty verdict after the other.

Diana Hernandez felt like someone stuck a knife in her heart.

"It made me feel really bad. It wasn't right," she told Channel 2’s Tom Jones.

It was two years ago when Smith and Hernandez argued and then got into a physical fight on Brandon Valley Way. Smith claimed he shot Hernandez in self-defense, but prosecutors told the jury the fight was over and Hernandez was walking away when Smith shot him.

Jury deliberations were contentious. After nearly 12 hours of deliberations, the jury said it reached a verdict. Smith bowed his head as if in prayer as the jury read not guilty on all nine counts.

Then something strange happened. Prosecutors, possibly noting the pained expression on one juror's face, asked the judge to poll the jury. This is where the judge individually asks each juror if the verdict reached is their verdict. The first 11 jurors quickly agreed it was. Then the 12th juror balked. She recanted. "Is this your verdict," Judge Collier inquired. "No your honor," she said.

The white juror told the judge that the other jurors had called her racist for not agreeing to acquit Smith. She said they had attacked her and made her so uncomfortable she refused to go back into the jury room.

Judge Collier considered removing the juror and seating an alternate, but said he had to do what was right, and he declared a mistrial after the juror said she was not going to change her vote.

Hernandez was relieved the juror took a stand.

"Thank God she was in there. She was like our little angel," she said.

The jury was made up of nine African Americans and three whites. The alternate was African American. Hernandez thought the black jurors wanted to vote not guilty because the defendant is black. She was happy the judge declared a mistrial.

"We really don't want him to come out of jail because he deserves to be there,” she said.

The judge ordered the media not to talk to the jury as it left the courthouse, so we were unable to inquire if race played a role in their deliberations. Prosecutors are considering whether to try the case again or explore a plea deal.

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