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A Cisco Systems Inc. shipping clerk who was sentenced to life in prison for theft will get a new trial because of “highly inappropriate” remarks by a Santa Clara County, Calif., trial judge, an appeal court has ruled. The 6th District Court of Appeal on Thursday reversed Gregory Wilks’ conviction for stealing company laptops because Superior Court Judge Ronald Lisk had told potential jurors that Cisco routinely hires warehouse workers who “are just out of prison.” “Reversal is required because these comments were incurably prejudicial,” Justice Nathan Mihara wrote in an unpublished opinion, “and no admonition could possibly wipe them from the prospective jurors’ minds.” Justices Conrad Rushing and Eugene Premo concurred. The case stems from a rash of missing laptops at the networking giant in 2001. Company records showed that Wilks entered the buildings where the laptops were stored around the time of the thefts. Video showed Wilks carrying a laptop bag or duffel bag. He had sold Cisco-configured laptops to acquaintances, who in turn tried to sell them on eBay, according to the 6th District. During voir dire, Lisk questioned a prospective juror who had been responsible for shipping and receiving at several high-tech companies, including Cisco. The would-be juror said she could be impartial, even though laptops had been stolen at times from the Cisco warehouse under her purview. “Do you want to know why?” Lisk then said. “Because most of the people you hire are just out of prison. No, that’s our experience, no disrespect. That’s our experience in this system, most people in shipping and receiving they don’t do background checks and so what happens, you know, that stuff disappears quicker than you can get it out on the dock.” When the prospective juror protested that the company had done background checks, Lisk responded, “not the way we can do them,” according to the 6th District. After the defense moved for a mistrial, Lisk acknowledged his “lapse in judgment” but denied the motion, saying he would instead tell jurors that his comments were not evidence and should be disregarded. Wilks was convicted of three counts of second-degree burglary and six counts of receiving and selling stolen property. Because he had two prior felony convictions, he was sentenced to 25 years to life, plus an additional two-year term, in state prison. In reversing, the 6th District noted that jurors heard evidence at trial that Wilks had worked in Cisco’s shipping department, had suffered prior convictions for robbery and theft, and was accused of stealing Cisco property. “No rational juror could have avoided connecting this evidence with the trial judge’s comments and concluding that the judge was convinced of defendant’s guilt,” Mihara wrote. “And the emphatic tone of the judge’s comments to the prospective juror only heightened the likelihood that the jurors would be influenced by the judge’s remarks.” Allen Crown, a deputy attorney general who handled the appeal, said the state has not decided whether to petition the California Supreme Court, although he added: “We would have liked to see the convictions upheld.” “I think the comments were questionable, and I think Judge Lisk recognized it because he told the jury to disregard the remarks,” Crown said. “Our office thought that the jury probably did disregard these remarks. But it’s a question of the appearance of justice.” Wilks’ attorney, Eileen Kotler of Pacifica’s Balin & Kotler, said the decision was critical to ensuring that Wilks receives a fair trial. “I always thought Mr. Wilks had a good case, and I would have been surprised if the court affirmed it,” she said. The case is People v. Wilks, H026559.

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