Michiel Oakes Seeks Reversal of 'Dog Whisperer' Murder Conviction Based on One Juror's Tweets

Mark Stover
As a member of the jury hearing the 2010 headline-making murder trial of Michiel Oakes - accused of shooting dog-trainer-to-the-stars Mark Stover in a love/hate triangle - teenager Caleb Chase sent out a tweet from his smartphone: "Wow. Sitting in the jury duty room listening to people casually having a conversation about new age rituals and no clue what to say."

It seemed an innocuous comment. But, Seattle Weekly reports today, that and a number of other Twitter messages sent by Chase are now being used by the imprisoned Oakes in hopes of freeing himself and gaining a new trial.

Papers were filed in Skagit County last month alleging Chase's 20 jury tweets during the trial violated Oakes' right to due process and a fair and impartial jury. Though other social media issues have been argued before on appeal, this is thought to be the first Twitter appeals case in state history.

As retired Chief Justice Gerry Alexander tells us, "During the 17 years I served on the Supreme Court of Washington, the court was never confronted with a case where a juror was tweeting during a time when the juror was empaneled."

Social media are having a growing impact on court cases here and elsewhere, says legal expert Eric Robinson. "Most states have updated their jury instructions to tell jurors not to use the Internet or social media," says Robinson; yet that's not being done on a regular basis in Washington.

Oakes is currently under a 26-year-sentence at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla for killing Stover at his Anacortes home in 2009. The subsequent trial was followed closely by U.S. television and newspapers who labeled Stover "Seattle's Dog Whisperer."

His psychological kinship with animals (he trained the dog to behave, then the owner), had brought him fame and fortune and such clients as Starbucks' Chair Howard Schultz, musician Eddie Vedder and baseball player Ichiro Suzuki.

But it was untamed human relationships that led to his demise. Linda Opdycke, daughter of the co-founder of the Ste. Michelle Winery and Stover's wife of three years, divorced him, then accused him of stalking her. Oakes, Opdycke's lover and bodyguard, ended up killing him, unsuccessfully claiming self-defense.

Does Oakes' "Twitter defense" have a chance of succeeding? Experts aren't sure. It's a relatively new legal tactic, though there's now a precedent of sorts: Last December, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction in a 2010 case because of a juror's tweets.

It's not binding on Washington law, but is seen as an important finding: The defendant in that case was on death row.

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