In today’s hyper connected world of 24 hours news and in-your-face social media that tweets breaking information before you have time to read it, one of the great concerns among legal professionals is keeping the jury pool free from pollution. As information is more widely and easily available, more and more people are becoming intimately aware of details of even routine criminal cases in their towns.
This presents an added challenge in weeding out those potential jurors who’ve already heard about a case and who might have made up their minds about the guilt or innocence of a defendant. The core right, of course, is the right to trial by an impartial jury.
But there’s another concern, one that not many pay attention to or can do much about: and that’s the post-verdict informational session usually conducted between the judge and the jury. This has happened after every trial to verdict I’ve been a part of: the judge slips into the jury deliberation room, chats with the civic minded people who’ve just discharged their important duty and proceeds to give them the dirty details of the case (and occasionally to answer questions).
Invariably, this discussion comes around to the defendant. And when discussing defendants, there’s nothing juicier than discussing a defendant’s criminal history. The jurors, besotted by curiosity, may ask questions about the defendant – to know what kind of person the defendant is: has he done this before? Does he have a record?
Some judges may choose to ignore such questions and some may not. Some public defender wrote in to the Legal Ethics Forum to ask that very question: what do you do with a judge who reveals the defendant’s criminal history to jurors post-verdict?
This past summer I tried a criminal case in federal court. After the guilty verdict but before the jurors were dismissed, the district court judge told them about my client’s prior bad acts. I would like to write an article and argue that this is wrong because it damages the future jury pool. If it cannot be done in Texas state courts, why should the federal courts be any different? Could you tell me of any articles or periodicals dealing with this issue?
I don’t know of any articles on this issue, but I do have some thoughts (surprised?). This is definitely something to be concerned about, but realistically we may be powerless to stop it.
A friend of a friend told me the story of a potential juror during voir dire a few years ago who was the lucky recipient of this “extra” information post-verdict in a trial for which she was a juror a long time ago. During this current voir dire, the story goes, she expressed her reservations about the criminal justice system because of that very fact: that she may not have all the information she’d like. “We found out later that the defendant had a lengthy record for this kind of thing”, she said. “If we’d known about it during the trial…” and her voice trailed off.
We can all finish her sentence, can’t we? “…we’d have convicted with much less deliberation.” There was a certain distrust in her voice, I’m told, about the system and of the defendant. This juror had been contaminated. How could she ever believe the defense? What were they hiding? Was the defendant a really bad guy? There’s no way she’d acquit, is there?
Telling the jury the behind-the-scenes operation of a trial is problematic, in my opinion. There’s a reason why some prior convictions aren’t introduced into evidence: primarily to avoid that very reaction. “Once a criminal, always a criminal” is a sentiment we strive very hard to avoid (unless, of course, you’re a sex offender, in which case, God help you. And even then…). It’s easy to think that once a trial is over, we can conspiratorially reveal the “secrets” of the trial to the jurors, like some piece of gossip we were just dying to reveal.
Doing this places an inordinate amount of importance on the fact of such prior convictions and elevates its function in the equation of guilt or innocence – which is to say it gives prior convictions any place in that equation, where it should have none.
That juror may have already discharged her service for that trial, but just as surely as the Sun rises in the East, she will be called for jury duty again and now, she will no longer be an acceptable juror for any criminal trial.
If that isn’t polluting the jury pool, I don’t know what is. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.
Bonus: On a related note, see this amusing story of a judge who served as a juror in the trial of a defendant over whose previous trial on identical charges he had presided. What a clusterf*ck of a sentence.