So, I was watching legal show the other day and in it, a defendant was charged with breaking into the home of a woman and violently assaulting her. An anonymous caller informed police that this was occurring, but when the police arrived, he hid with her in the bathroom and kept her silent. When the police left, he resumed his beating until she somehow managed to call relatives who called 911.
The man was on trial – a jury was summarily selected in an afternoon and opening statements were delivered the next day. During the defense attorney’s opening statement – as these things go – a juror unexpectedly blurted out that she couldn’t sit on this case because – wait for it - she was the anonymous caller!
Dun dun dun.
Oh wait, this wasn’t a TV show, this actually happened. In real life.
“She said, ‘I was the (anonymous) person who made the 911 call,’” the assistant prosecutor said.
“She said, ‘It woke me up out of my bed and I saw him beating on her. I thought she must be dead.’”
Her outburst tainted the entire jury because it corroborated statements made by the prosecution and claims made by the victim, [Judge] Ruehlman declared a mistrial.
The new trial begins Wednesday – and [juror-turned-witness] Johnson-Riddle will be called by prosecutors to testify against the man she originally was to sit in judgment against.
The article tries to explain away this amazing turn of events by stating that during jury selection, prospective jurors aren’t given the detailed facts of the case. That may be true, but in every damn case I’ve ever tried (and by now that number is well over a thousand), the judge not only reads the charging document which lists the date, time and location of the offense, but every single juror is asked whether they have any familiarity with the location or the people involved. Another question that’s typically asked is whether the prospective juror knows anyone who’s been a victim of a crime. If nothing else, that question should have triggered her memory.
So what happened here? Did they forget to ask? Did they ask and she wasn’t paying attention? Or did they ask and she lied? Or was it a case of group voir dire not providing an adequate opportunity to properly examine potential jurors? (Yeah, you knew I was going there.)
Whatever the cause, the lesson is clear: people are mercurial and what may seem to be a straightforward question to you and me, may be vague and obscure to another. One can’t rely on a script to weed out the undesirable jurors. You have to assess the juror, analyze him or her and then tailor your questions to fit that juror’s personality.
Of course, it would be a lot easier if you had 20 minutes one-on-one with the juror…