Dispute over juror’s residency puts conviction of Mobile doctor in jeopardy

Published: May. 22, 2023 at 6:34 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The conviction of a former neurosurgeon is in jeopardy amid allegations that one of the jurors misled the court about where she lives.

The jury convicted Jonathan Pishoi Nakhla, 38, in March of reckless murder in the death of medical student Samantha Thomas during a high-speed crash in 2020. A judge sentenced him to 25 years.

But Nakhla’s lawyers have asked a judge to set aside that conviction and order a new trial. The 26-page court filing raises arguments the attorneys have made before – for instance, that Mobile County Circuit Judge Ben Brooks erred when he denied a request for a mistrial over surveillance footage that the defense team did not receive until after the trial had started.

But by far the biggest bombshell in the defense filing is the allegations that one of the jurors lived in Baldwin County. State law requires all jurors to live in the circuit where the trial is taking place.

Defense attorney Dennis Knizley said the defense uncovered the discrepancy when it sought to talk to jurors after that verdict. He told FOX10 News that the defense because suspicious when learning that one of the jurors works at the Hangout in Gulf Shores, which would entail a commute of an hour or more from Mobile.

The defense cites at 2008 Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals case involving an Escambia County sodomy case in which a juror lived across the state line in Florida.

“It is fatal to the conviction if the juror does not live in the county,” Knizley told FOX10 News.

Mobile County District Attorney Keith Blackwood said post-conviction motions are common.

“These motions are filed in many cases,” he said. ‘We see them with regularity.”

Blackwood said his office has not had time to look into these new allegations to determine whether they are true. And even if they are, he added, he is not conceding that it would require a new trial.

“That’s the best part of what’s going to be argued at the hearing – you know, whether the residency question is settled one way or the other,” he said. “You know, there’s going to be a legal standard that will have to be achieved for the judge to be able to grant a new trial. And that would certainly be part of the argument that we would be making.”

Nakhla’s lawyers submitted a number of documents indicating that the jurors lived in Baldwin County all or part of that 12-month period before the trial:

  • A document in a collections lawsuit filed by South Baldwin Regional Medical Center indicating that she had moved out of the Mobile address she had listed. A process server indicated he was unable to serve the woman at the Mobile address two months before the trial started.
  • Documents indicating that a lien had been placed and then released on property the juror owned in Daphne.
  • A speeding ticket issued in 2018 listing the woman’s home address in Daphne.
  • Property tax records listing the woman’s mother as owner of the Mobile address where her jury summons was sent.
  • A report listing a Daphne address at the woman’s home from February 2020 to April of this year.

During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Nakhla was drunk past the legal limit and driving his 2018 Audi Spyder convertible at 138 mph seconds before losing control of the vehicle on the Interstate 65 service road after midnight on Aug. 1, 2020.

Brooks will not be the judge who decides whether to grant a new trial. He has recused himself from all further proceedings involving Nakhla, although he provided no explanation.

Presiding Circuit Judge Wesley Pipes has taken over the case.