Jury Trials Need Not Be Complicated

The broadcast media has always had an inexplicable fascination with high-profile murder trials and have given them a great degree of coverage, even though they actually have very little importance locally, and virtually none at the state or national level.

The latest soap opera jury trial seems to be the Casey Anthony murder case in Florida, involving a mother accused of killing her own child. It’s really unbelievable to see it being covered on the network news, as if it was an important story. The truth is the verdict will have virtually no effect on anyone, but the defendant.

My purpose in writing is not however to critique the media, for I know they see it as their job to provide the news regarding such events. The part I am qualified to comment on is the conduct of jury trials, as I prosecuted and defended a great number of them, over a 25-year career as a trial lawyer.

Since cameras were first allowed in courtrooms in the late 1970s, the public has been able to watch high-profile jury trials. I had no objection to broadcast coverage then, and I have no problem with it now, but I do know TV changes the behavior of the actors involved, including the witnesses, lawyers, and judges.

When judges are on camera, they act differently than they do otherwise. They behave better. They research motions more. Their rulings are more detailed. They exercise greater care and caution throughout the proceedings, because they know they are on stage.

When I heard the Anthony jury selection took 11 days, I just shook my head. I tried extremely complicated jury trials and never needed more than a half of a day to complete jury selection. While I respect the hard work trial judges and attorneys do on both sides, I cannot help but think the court is bending over backwards to insure fairness, because the media is paying such close attention.

In most trials, once I had the names, addresses, and occupations of those on the jury panel, I pretty much knew all I needed to know. A juror in apartment 123½ 1st St. (so to speak) was probably going to have a different outlook than one living at Country Club Dr., in a wealthy part of town. Bookkeepers and bankers were going to see things differently than teachers and professors. A white man in a business suit and tie was most likely going to have a different perspective than a black woman wearing a pink hat.

To be honest, much jury questioning was not useful, because many jurors failed to respond truthfully. When judges ask: “can you be fair and impartial?” I never once heard a juror say the word “no,” since they think they have no prejudices whatsoever.

While a few hours should be allowed to question potential jurors as to their viewpoints, there is truly a limit to what can be learned. While I strongly believe in jury trials, and a correct result is reached in the vast majority of cases, I have also thought even the most complicated of cases could and should be completed within two weeks. Cumulative and repetitive testimony does not make a case better. The O. J. Simpson Marcia Clark approach of beating a point to death, usually adds nothing. Judges and lawyers would be wise to get to the point, by keeping cases as simple as possible, despite the attention the broadcast media brings to the courtroom.


3 Comments to “Jury Trials Need Not Be Complicated”

  1. I have to disagree that high coverage of murder trials doesn’t have an effect on society. Interestingly enough, the author of the article uses an example of a woman charged with killing her own child. Although history documents a few women involved in their own child’s deaths, a study of the initial stages of investigating child homicides demonstrates that women are rarely “suspected” of the crime unless overwhelming physical evidence leads investigators in that direction.

    Our society has a bias against believing that a woman would kill a child. All things equal, motive, opportunity and some nexus to the crime scene, investigators and prosecutors will lean toward the male. As such, the high profile coverage of Casey Anthony will effect that preexisting bias.

  2. The point is that while some new stories, such as the termination of Medicare, affect millions of people, and deserve national coverage, most murder trials usually affect only the parties involved, and do not deserve intense coverage. The OJ case for example had absolutely no affect whatsoever on you or me, but the nation as a whole was subjected to it for months. My point is a comparative one. Since there is a limited amount of news print and broadcast media time, it should be primarily devoted to issues that affect the public at large.

    • Although it is true that issues such as Medicare effect many people “financially”, a murder effects society “psychologically”. If effects their feeling of being safe, their attitudes toward our criminal justice system. And for many people, watching other tragedy effects ones own sense of self worth.

      Having said the above, the press and media does miss out on an opportunity to better educate its viewers on how our criminal justice system really works. Too often, the press and media is more interested in making the story “exciting” and in presenting the case from only one point of view. It would be truly be more educational if the reporters provided a detail analysis of both sides of the case with an accurate analysis of the criminal procedure.

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