WILSON, N.C.—When Christopher Korfmann was called for jury duty in June 2015, he took that responsibility seriously, and wanted to make sure he remembered all the evidence presented in the courtroom. Unfortunately, all Korfmann received for his diligence was a 30-day jail sentence for contempt of court.
However, thanks to Womble Carlyle attorneys Brent Powell and Jamie Dean, who represented Korfmann on a pro bono basis, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled June 7th that Wilson County Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch overstepped his bounds in jailing the juror. The case earned significant media attention, with most observers stunned that a well-meaning citizen could be jailed for what, at worst, was an honest mistake.
The dispute began when Korfmann was serving on a jury in a civil trial involving a motor vehicle accident. He took notes on his cell phone after leaving court on a lunch break and had his cell phone out in the jury room during deliberations. When Judge Fitch learned about Korfmann’s note-taking, he declared a mistrial and ordered Korfmann jailed for 30 days. A different judge subsequently released Korfmann on bond after he served six days behind bars.
Powell and Dean raised a number of concerns about the order to jail Korfmann. The juror did not knowingly show contempt for the court—in fact, he was trying to do his best to fulfill his duties. Also, Judge Fitch did not tell the jury they could not take notes or use phones until he held Korfmann in contempt of court. No warning was given and Korfmann was not given a chance to respond to the contempt charge. The Court of Appeals vacated Korfmann’s conviction, holding that the trial court failed to give Korfmann the required notice of the charges against him and an opportunity to respond.
In their decision, the Appeals Court wrote “We point out that a finding of contempt against a citizen, attempting to fulfill his civic duty to serve as a juror for the first time, along with a thirty-day jail sentence, may also have significant repercussions.”
“I’m grateful for all the support I have received from my family and friends,” Korfmann said. “I said from the beginning that I only wanted to do my best as a juror and had no intentions of creating trouble for the court. I’m glad the Court of Appeals understood that.”
Brent Powell focuses his practice on complex commercial litigation. Powell represents clients in a wide array of industries, including health care, commercial lending, real estate, pharmaceuticals, furniture, higher education, manufacturing, and telecommunications. He has experience advising media outlets in First Amendment and newsgathering issues. Powell practices in Womble Carlyle’s Winston-Salem, N.C. office.
Jamie Dean’s practice involves complex civil litigation in areas including commercial and consumer finance, insurance coverage and bad faith claim handling, commercial real estate, products liability, professional negligence, trade secret misappropriation and employee dishonesty, contract disputes, and business torts. He practices in Womble Carlyle’s Winston-Salem office.
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