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N.J. court rules against judge's meeting alone with jury

When Merchantville physician Abbas Husain did not place his left hand on the Bible while being sworn in to testify in a Camden courtroom, a juror took notice.

When Merchantville physician Abbas Husain did not place his left hand on the Bible while being sworn in to testify in a Camden courtroom, a juror took notice.

The juror later mentioned her surprise at Husain's action to Superior Court Judge Stephen Holden - after the jury awarded $12,500 to a woman who claimed Husain had sexually harassed her. The juror made the comments during a meeting between Holden and the jury.

Husain learned about the discussion after Holden mentioned it to the attorneys. He appealed the ruling, arguing that the conversation between the juror and Holden was grounds for a mistrial - such discussion is prohibited without attorneys present.

The appeal rose to the New Jersey State Supreme Court, which on Tuesday released its opinion: Judges cannot talk alone with jurors after a verdict unless misconduct is involved.

The ruling clarifies a court mandate that, some attorneys have argued, judges did not always follow. A former judge and both attorneys involved in the Husain case say it's the right call.

Richard S. Hyland, who served in Camden County Superior Court in the 1980s, but who was not involved in the Husain case, said meeting with jurors alone was a risky thing to do, particularly as someone may say something that leads to a mistrial.

"Judges have a natural curiosity as to why jurors ruled the way they did, and can gain some insights from that," he said. "But on balance, it's not worth the risk."

Lynda Yamamoto, the Cherry Hill attorney who represents Husain, agreed.

"Judges sometimes think they can make up a little bit of their own ways of doing things," she said. "The court is saying this can't happen again, and I don't think it will."

According to the state Supreme Court ruling, Holden expressed surprise that the juror's comment caused such conflict.

"I shared with counsel the fact that one of the jurors, as we were leaving, mentioned that she noticed that he didn't touch the Bible," Holden said, adding, "There was no one else on the jury that was affected by that, nor did anyone shake their heads, nor did anyone on the jury indicate, 'Oh, yeah, I saw that, too.' "

The case against Husain was first heard in 2011. Tomikia Davis, a South Jersey woman who cleaned and filed part time at his office, told jurors Husain had touched her buttocks and made sexually explicit comments.

Now, because of the conversation between Judge Holden and the juror, Husain's case is headed back to a Camden County courtroom. Another judge yet to be assigned will determine whether the conversation warrants a new trial.

Deborah Mains, who represents Davis, said despite the possibility of another trial, the state Supreme Court made a good decision.

"I'm not troubled by the Supreme Court taking very seriously any issue that in its mind has even the potential to raise a question as to the integrity of the process," she said.

"The public has to be comfortable and confident in the jury system," she said. "If they're not, it fails."

The ruling still permits judges to thank jurors for their service during proceedings.

A woman who answered the phone at Husain's Voorhees home said he was not available Wednesday. Another person who answered the phone at his former medical office said he had retired.

Davis could not be reached.