Daily Archives: February 21, 2008

The tortoise and the hare: CT’s jury selection in focus again

Last year, some organization somewhere surveyed judges and lawyers from all states and determined that CT’s jury selection process took the longest: on average 10 hours for a criminal trial and 16 for civil. It then determined that S. Carolina had the fastest process: 30 minutes on average for criminal trials. I took this to be a good thing. There wasn’t much hullabaloo in the State, either. Everyone understood that getting it right takes time. We question jurors individually and, I think, rightly so (I do not want to start the blawgospheric conversation again, so Bennett and Greenfield – you have been warned. DO NOT link to this post and raise the same issues again.)

However, it seems that the American Idol disease is spreading on from the Governor. Judiciary Committee co-chair Andrew McDonald apparently heard that some jury selections in Stamford (his district) took a combined 13 weeks. They were two med mal cases and a friggin’ murder trial. The hammer hit the knee and now we have a reaction:

“It’s extraordinary,” state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said of the slow system and the cost to defendants who pay their attorneys by the hour. “We need to look at ways of making our jury selection process more efficient.”

Ah, he has revealed the secret of private practice: Drag on jury selection indefinitely, so you make gobs of money. It has nothing to do with seating unbiased jurors, but everything to do with money.

But McDonald said there are ways to tweak the rule without violating the constitution or amending it again. He is not ready to offer proposals, but other attorneys and national experts did so.

Some suggest giving jury candidates more detailed questionnaires about their backgrounds or having judges take more control. Judges in Connecticut do not sit in on jury selection in civil cases. They rarely interfere with an attorney’s questioning in criminal cases, the National Association for State Courts study found last year.

More active judges might cut off attorneys who drift off topic, experts said.

“The attorneys in Connecticut may not know how to rein in their questioning,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the association’s Center for Jury Studies and an author of the recent study.

Yes. Lawyers in Connecticut are incompetent; judges are hands-off and everyone has a party when you go to jury selection. Lawyers here accept probably one juror a day.

It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that sometimes these potential jurors say things like: “I always believe the cop” or “I think if you’re innocent of something, you should take the stand and say it”. No. That never happens.

Here’s another thing: This “10 hours to pick a jury” is an average. Not every trial takes that long; some are quick, some take a while. But the plus side is that unsuitable jurors are very rarely seated. You’d think it was something to be proud of.

National experts said Connecticut’s approach has value, though they support McDonald’s move to speed it up.

A judge in the Superior Court system in Washington, D.C., began questioning jury candidates individually in the late 1990s and found that about a third failed to volunteer important information during group questioning, Hannaford-Agor said. The judge disqualified about a quarter of that group because of an obvious prejudice, she said.

“In group settings, people just slip into a socially acceptable means of responding,” said Andrew Sheldon, a nationally known expert on jurors who heads SheldonSinrich Trial Consultants in Atlanta.

Then there’s the matter of the State Constitution, which while not having an explicit Ex Post Facto or Double Jeopardy Clause, does state (in Article 1, Section 19, for those who are interested) that “[t]he right to question each juror individually by counsel shall be inviolate.”

So it takes a little longer in our state to pick a jury. Who gives a sh*t.

Pollitt neighbors want tax break

Remember David Pollitt? (Previous posts here, here, here and here.) After trying to block his move into their neighborhood, and failing, residents are now trying to get their money back. Literally. They’ve asked the town to reduce the property tax assessment of their homes by as much as 17%.

Carolyn Nadeau, president of the Connecticut Association of Assessing Officers, said the request may be the first of its kind in the state.

“I’ve never had an instance like this,” she said. “Any number of times there are distractions that people feel negatively impact their property values, such as unsightly blight, but we haven’t seen this.”

The company that revalued all properties in Southbury last fall rejected the residents’ plea for help. The new values took effect Oct. 1 and Pollitt didn’t move to the neighborhood until Oct. 12.

It’s tough. My initial reaction is to roll my eyes, but only because I was quite disgusted with the nonsense that went on the first time around. I can understand that their property values probably have taken a bit of a hit, and they’re trying to do something, anything about it. But they’re not the only ones. Residents throughout the state have to deal with this as sex offenders (and other offenders) move into their neighborhoods. What about your friendly neighborhood DUI repeat offender? I’d be worried about that kind of offender weaving around my street, drunk, knocking pedestrians off.

What will happen when other registries go online? Will it just suppress the housing market as a whole? While prices go down across the board? Or will people remember that ex-convicts have always lived amongst us and move on? What else can be done?