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ACLU calls for investigation into GRPD detective texting juror, prosecutor says it has been handled

The ACLU said a Grand Rapids police detective texted with a juror, a personal friend, during a criminal trial last year.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said a Grand Rapids Police detective exchanged text messages with a juror during a criminal trial on December 4 2019. 

Thursday, the ACLU sent a letter to Grand Rapids Office of Oversight and Public Accountability and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights calling for an investigation into the detective. 

However, the Kent County Prosecutor's Office said the ACLU's claim the matter was not investigated was completely false.

The trial was for a suspect accused of possessing drugs with the intent to distribute. During deliberations, Robert Zabriske, a 24-year veteran of the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) texted a juror on the case. According to the ACLU, those messages were about another juror who was hesitant to vote guilty.

"As the experience officer with 24 years of experience," said Elaine Lewis, an attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, "the detective should have known right away that it's improper to talk to a sitting jury, sitting juror, about the content of deliberations."

According to court testimony, Zabriske had not worked on the case, and said, "I don't even know what this case is." He also said the female juror was a close, personal friend. 

The juror was complaining to Zabriske about being on the jury, and about a fellow juror who she called "disgruntled." 

Zabriske replied through text, "This is NOT a nightmare. It is your civic duty. We need good people to show up and say they don’t have a preconceived notions about guilt or innocence, and then, find the defendant guilty. Duh. LOL."

Then, the ACLU said Zabriske brought race into the exchange. The juror called the dissenting juror "obnoxious" and emotional. In response, Zabriske asked, "Is this a black lady?"

"An officer who believes negative stereotypes about black people," said Lewis, "shouldn't be on the streets policing Grand Rapids people."

The case was later ruled a mistrial by 17th District Court Judge Curt Benson after looking into the text exchange. 

Chris Becker, Kent County Prosecutor, said an investigation was conducted into Zabriske. In fact, Becker said the detective brought the matter himself to the assistant prosecutor the following day. 

"I was fairly mad about what the allegations were in the letter about our office essentially covering this up," said Becker, "because nothing could be further from the truth."

He said the ACLU only contacted him Wednesday night about releasing the letter, not earlier into their work on the case. 

Becker said he referred the issue to an independent prosecutor and the Attorney General assigned it to an Ottawa County prosecutor. 

After that investigation, the decision was made not to file charges. 

"We're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination," said Becker, "But we did this by the book, and did everything completely aboveboard as we were supposed to."

In the Ottawa County Prosecutor Memo to Police Agency, it was determined, “I do not believe that it can be proven that Detective Zabriske intended to commit the offense of Jury Tampering or any other associated type of offense.”

The memo explains reasons for that conclusion, in part, because the juror initiated the contact, and "there is no evidence that Zabriske had any particular interest or involvement in the case.”

GRPD also told 13 ON YOUR SIDE they conducted an internal investigation into Zabriske, but did not reveal any details. 

In response to learning GRPD had conducted an internal investigation, Lewis said, "that's good news to hear."

"They're at least starting to look at this issue," said Lewis, "I think the result should be publicly released so that people can understand what's going on and how the GRPD has decided to hold people accountable."

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