Feb 15, 2018

Murder convictions overturned because Jehovah's Witness not allowed to serve on jury

New trials were ordered in the murder cases of (l to r) John Pacchiana, Christin Bilotti and Michael Bilotti, accused of the 2005 murder of Richard Rojas in Davie.
Rafael Olmeda
Sun Sentinel
February 14, 2018

A father, daughter and strip club bouncer convicted of murder in 2015 are entitled to a new trial because the judge on the case unfairly kept a Jehovah’s Witness off the jury, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Michael and Christin Bilotti were convicted, along with John Pacchiana, of murder in the death of Richard Rojas, a Miami teenager who, according to trial testimony, had been falsely accused of rape and burglary.

But Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Levenson was wrong to keep a member of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, commonly known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, off the jury, according to the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are prohibited by their religion from certain civic activities, such as voting, serving in the military and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, but the government is not permitted to force them into or prevent them from such activities. According to the religion’s website, participating on a jury is optional.

But when a Jehovah’s Witness showed up on the panel for the Bilotti jury, prosecutor Gregg Rossman objected because other members of the group who report for jury duty routinely indicate it is against their religion to pass judgment.

“They’ve always said they can’t sit in judgment,” Rossman said during jury selection.

Levenson asked the juror whether she could serve.

“If the evidence that’s provided to me is clear cut and concise, I would be able to,” the juror answered.

The appeals court drew a distinction between common understanding of a group’s religious beliefs and an individual member's adherence to those beliefs.

“The potential juror stated that she would follow the law and gave no indication that she would allow her status as a Jehovah’s Witness to affect her decision-making at all,” the court ruled. “In moving to strike her, the state merely relied on the juror’s membership in a religion without any testimony that it would actually affect her service as a juror.’’

Rojas, 18, was shot to death by Pacchiana outside Christin Bilotti’s Davie home in July 2005. Her father, who was divorced from her mother, was accused of setting up the murder after Christin accused Rojas of raping her. The rape, according to the prosecution, never took place.

"I did not plan nor did I direct the harm of Mr Rojas, " Michael Bilotti said.

Pacchiana has always said he was being attacked by Rojas when he opened fire.

Christin Bilotti maintained she was raped by Rojas the afternoon before the shooting.

"I did not make it up. Everything that happened was true," she said.

Michael Bilotti and Pacchiana were convicted of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Each was sentenced to life in prison.

Christin Bilotti, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

All three are entitled to new trials, the appeals court ruled.

Rossman, who is no longer a prosecutor, said the appeals court ruling was disappointing but declined to comment further. The State Attorney’s Office also declined to comment.

Defense lawyers H. Dohn Williams, who represents Pacchiana, and Fred Haddad, who represents Michael Bilotti, said the ruling raises significant constitutional issues and they wouldn’t be surprised if the prosecutors appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Attorneys are not permitted to ask jurors about their religious beliefs, Williams said. If a juror can be excluded based on religion, attorneys should be permitted to ask about the issue, he said.

The juror in this case volunteered the information on a questionnaire in response to a question about hobbies.


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