Category Archives: ct legal news

A questioning jury

Every thinking criminal defense lawyer is, at some point every year, occupied with the idea of improving the jury trial process. Having readily concluded that the lawyer himself is not to blame and is at the peak of his abilities, the focus naturally turns to the only laymen in the room: the jurors. For once, though, the lawyer’s narcissism isn’t misplaced. The jury is, most often, the ultimate arbiter of whatever it is at dispute. Having spent thousands of hours ranting on this blog about how the system is flawed and how jurors are like black boxes and you should ELI5, I can’t pass up the opportunity to comment on something unusual that’s occurring in a high profile trial in Arizona.

Jodi Arias is someone who’s accused of doing something and for some reason the trial is getting a lot of publicity. The interesting thing, from my perspective, is the fact that Arizona seems to be a state that permits juror questioning of witnesses during criminal trials. And so Ms. Arias has spent the last few days answering over 100 questions from the jurors in her case. Much to her supposed dismay, the questions in her case seem to indicate that the jury thinks she’s full of shit.

There’s no doubt in my mind that our system is imperfect and even the jury trial itself could use improvement, but whether jurors should be permitted to ask questions of witnesses at all is a very interesting question that I’ve neglected in the past. I’ve written about proposals permitting questions, among others, and of a proposal to permit Q&A during closing arguments (which I still think is a fabulous idea), but the idea that jurors will get to ask questions of my defendant sends a shiver or two down my spine.

The initial knee-jerk negative reaction stems from the fear of losing control, as evidenced by what’s happening with Arias. Losing control of the defense and perhaps undoing some of the work done to that point and also losing control of the trial itself when jurors ask absurd questions designed solely to disclose their displeasure or incredulity.

On the other hand, the allure of knowing just what the jury is thinking and being given a limited opportunity to address or reinforce their doubts is far too tempting. I’d always want to know, rather than not. I’m the lawyer who hangs out in the courtroom after a verdict so I can talk to jurors, because I want to know why they voted one way or another, so I can learn and put it to good use next time. But that’s merely educational. Wouldn’t it be great to know what they’re thinking while the trial is going on?

This excellent article in The Jury Expert argues just that: that lawyers needs to get over their fear (and indeed they do once they’ve gone through a trial with juror question) and embrace the positives (see also the ABA’s 19 principles to improve jury practice [PDF]). Surprisingly, there is some clinical research on the impact that permitting jurors to ask questions has on trials:

Larry Heuer and Steven Penrod examined the impact of allowing jurors to take notes and ask questions in both civil and criminal trials through two experiments, one conducted in Wisconsin state courts, and the other involving both state and federal courts in 33 states. [...] They found that when jurors were allowed to ask questions, jurors felt more informed about the evidence, thought the questioning of witnesses had been thorough, and were more confident they had sufficient information to reach a verdict.

According to judges and attorneys jurors did not ask inappropriate questions, and jurors did not report being embarrassed or angry when their questions were objected to. They also found that jurors did not draw inappropriate inferences from unanswered questions. Jurors remained neutral, rather than becoming advocates, when they were allowed to ask questions, and did not rely more heavily on the answers to their own questions than the rest of the trial evidence. However, jurors, attorneys, and judges did not report increased satisfaction with the trial or verdict when jurors were able to ask questions compared to when they were not.

Attorneys in the study reported that their greatest fears regarding juror questions were not realized: information they deliberately omitted was not brought up, questions did not interfere with their trial strategy or cause them to lose command of their case, nor did they prejudice their client. After the trial, both judges and attorneys in cases where jurors were allowed to ask questions said they were more in favor of allowing jurors to ask questions than did those judges and attorneys on trials where juror questions were not permitted.

Of course, this is not a practice that should be wantonly permitted: there have to regulations on instructions, objections and what, exactly, is the standard that would permit a question to be asked. Do both parties need to consent? These are questions about implementation, not the wisdom of the practice itself.

The idea scares me because I think of the frustration mid-trial when I learn that the jury may be leaning toward convicting my client. But that eventuality exists whether I am aware of it or not. And if I am aware, I may be able to do something about it. In this instance, it might be better to kill Schroedinger’s cat.

Surprisingly, it seems Connecticut may already permit juror questions. See Spitzer v. Haims & Co., 217 Conn. 532 (1991) and see footnote 3 for the jury instruction related to juror questioning. In Spitzer, the CT Supreme Court held:

In examining this issue of first impression in our state, we note that the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions that have considered the issue conclude that, although the practice of juror questions should not be encouraged, it is within the discretion of the trial court to permit such a procedure. The principal risks articulated by the courts are that: (1) counsel may be inhibited from objecting to questions for fear of offending the jurors; People v. McAlister, 167 Cal. App.3d 633, 645, 213 Cal. Rptr. 271 (1985); (2) interruptions by jurors would disrupt courtroom decorum; Sparks v.Daniels, 343 S.W.2d 661, 667-68 (Mo. App. 1961); Superior & Pittsburg Copper Co. v. Tomich, 19 Ariz. 182, 188, 165 P. 1101 (1917); (3) questions asked by the jurors may not be relevant to the issues; State v. Howard, 320 N.C. 718, 725-26, 360 S.E.2d 790 (1987); and (4) asking questions may distort the jurors’ objectivity. People v.McAlister, supra.

In this case, however, the procedure implemented by the trial court operated to avoid most of these risks. The jurors wrote out their questions in the jury room, and the judge and attorneys reviewed them outside the presence of the jury, where the attorneys were allowed to voice their objections. This procedure avoided the risks that an attorney might decline to object for fear of offending the jury and that jurors’ questions would interrupt the court or the attorneys during the trial. Furthermore, the court instructed the jurors at the beginning of the trial that they could not draw any adverse inferences from the fact that a particular question was disallowed. Reviewing and ruling on the questions outside the presence of the jury dispelled any likelihood that an impermissible question would be asked.

For a lengthy list of cases discussing this issue, see footnote 8 of Spitzer. To see if your state permits it, see here. While Spitzer was a civil case, State v. Mejia seems to indicate that the practice would likely be extended to criminal trials as well (approving juror note-taking in criminal trials).

Has anyone out there tried it? I am willing to shed my steady habit for this and take juror questioning for a spin.

See also: Turkewitz’s blog.

Safeword: Get out of my bedroom

One of the questions I deliberately side-stepped while ranting about the fiasco that was the media coverage of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Fourtin, back in October, was the question of whether people who are disabled and mentally ill can legally have the capacity to consent.

Some of the arguments seemed to indicate that people in the position of the complainant in Fourtin – people with physical and/or mental disabilities – are never able to consent and thus any sexual encounters with them are perforce illegal. I expressed some misgivings at the time and I still do: I think that love and sex are two fundamental aspects of what make us human and just because someone has a mental illness or a physical handicap doesn’t mean that we, as whole and able bodied beings, have the right to legislate away their right to be happy.

And now the CT Supreme Court is back at it again, considering just this issue. In Kortner v. Martise, as best I can tell, the two issues are as follows:

1. Whether the trial court properly let a jury decide whether a woman with mental illnesses could consent to BDSM-type sexual encounters.

2. Whether anyone can consent to BDSM-type sexual encounters.

Essentially what happened is this: there was a woman named Caroline Kortner, who, when she was 24 in 1994 was deemed to be incompetent by a probate court and her mother Mary Kortner was appointed her conservator. Sometime in 2003, she met Martise and the two of them started a relationship that involved BDSM:

the relationship included Martise dragging her daughter by a leash and dog collar, slapping her with his hand and a belt, pinching and twisting body parts, tying and gagging her and dripping burning hot wax on her. [The jury in Stamford ruled there was no proof to the dragging and pinching allegations.]

Some other, more “benign” acts alleged were: slapping her buttocks with his hand and belt during intercourse, dressing her in a crotchless black stocking and cat’s mask (?!), and “repeatedly” showing her pornographic pictures and videos. Mary Kortner was appointed conservator because:

In 1994, a probate court had ruled her incapable of managing her own affairs during a period when she refused to eat.

She had other problems as well:

[She] had been diagnosed with clinical depression, borderline personality disorder, bulimia and anorexia, and she tried to commit suicide twice, according to court documents. She also had a stroke in 2001 that left her partially paralyzed from the waist down and incontinent, court records say.

In 2006, the mother sued Martise, alleging the torts of sexual battery, assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional harm, seeking $500,000 in damages because she claimed that he had abused her daughter and that because of her daughter’s mental and physical condition, she couldn’t consent to anything. Martise responded that Caroline was an adult woman and could, indeed, consent to sexual activity.

The mother then argued to the judge that because of the conservatorship, Caroline couldn’t legally consent and therefore whether she actually consented was not a question for any jury to determine. The trial court disagreed and let the jury decide whether Caroline had indeed consented. They found that she had and thus, did not render verdict in the mother’s favor. Here [PDF] are the questions posed to the jury and their responses.

[At this juncture, it's important to note that this was not a criminal trial. I don't think Martise was charged with a crime. This was a civil trial, a lawsuit filed by the mother against Martise seeking money.]

So this presents an opportunity for an intellectual exercise on the first question and a clear, unequivocal rant on the second question. Can someone be so mentally ill or physically disabled that they cannot, by operation of law, consent to an act? I think the answer has to be yes. There has to be a line at which we say that no consent is knowingly given. But that line, I think, must depend on individual circumstances. And so, by default, the inquiry must be fact-specific.

A jury must determine whether a person with a disability: 1) has, in fact, consented; 2) if they have consented, how intelligent was that consent: in other words, was that consent given with an understanding of the consequences of that consent and a willing participation in the actions that followed that consent.

In that sense, consent given by someone with a mental illness is no different than determining whether someone without a mental illness has consented. The reason, I suspect, why there can’t be a bright line “anyone with mental illness cannot consent” rule is that such a rule would cover well over 70% of the population1 of the United States. It’s got to be on a case-by-case basis. The court may well rule that the conservatorship is a factor to be considered in determining whether the person has the ability to consent and whether consent was actually given, but it won’t be the whole shebang.

As to question number two, which is phrased thusly in the summary: “The plaintiff also argues that, as a matter of public policy, one cannot be deemed to have consented to sexual abuse and degradation.” let me simply say this: get. the. fuck. out. of. my. bedroom.

If I want to whip a consenting adult in my bedroom, it’s none of your damn business. If i want to be tied up and made to squeal like a pig while my lover attaches electrified nipple clamps to my nipples because I like it, I’m going to do it and it’s none of your damn business. If I want to have sex while my lover reads transcripts of my worst moments in court and calls me a public pretender and rules that I provide ineffective assistance of counsel, it’s none of your damn business.

Just because you don’t get off doesn’t mean you get to tell me how I can’t get off. Or you can, but only if I like that sort of thing.


1Not a scientific stat, but based purely on personal experience. You people are fucking nuts.

We thought of the children

For years I’ve written about the sorry state of the juvenile justice system and the inattention we pay to the lives of the children who get caught up in it, sometimes through no fault of their own. So it heartens me (with some pretty important reservations) to see this report [PDF] from the Justice Policy Institute about the remarkable transformation of CT’s juvenile justice system from one of complete failure to that of a role model for the rest of the country in about 10 short years. From their executive summary [PDF]:

In 2007, Connecticut made national headlines when it passed a law ending its status as one of just three states that automatically tried and punished all 16 and 17 year-olds as adults. Yet this historic   “Raise the Age” legislation is just one of many reforms enacted by Connecticut’s juvenile justice system in recent years. Propelled by a determined coalition of advocates and public sector innovators, Connecticut has forged a new consensus for progressive change in juvenile justice, and it has transformed a previously wasteful, punitive, ineffective, and often abusive juvenile justice system into a national model – at no additional cost to taxpayers. Perhaps more than any other state, Connecticut has absorbed the growing body of knowledge about youth development and delinquency, adopted its lessons, and used the information to fundamentally re-invent its approach to juvenile justice. As a result, Connecticut’s system today is far and away more successful, more humane, and more cost-effective than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

And the evidence is staggering: residential commitments for juveniles are down 70% despite the influx of 16 and 176 year olds into the system; the number of juveniles locked up for “status offenses” (missing school, etc.) has become negligible; the number of youth tried and convicted as adults has also drastically declined:

For decades, Connecticut was one of only three states that prosecuted and punished all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. In 2007, the state enacted historic legislation to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18, effective January 1, 2010 for 16 year olds and July 1, 2012 for 17 year olds. Even before 17 year-olds became eligible for juvenile court on July 1, 2012, the new law had enabled 8,325 16 year-olds to avoid prosecution and punishment in the adult criminal justice system. Extending juvenile jurisdiction to 16 year-olds has increased juvenile caseloads far less than expected (22 percent actual versus 40 percent projected); as a result the state spent nearly $12 million less in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 than it had budgeted. Meanwhile, 16 year-olds served by the juvenile system have had higher success rates in alternative programs and lower rearrest rates than youth 15 and younger, disproving concerns that they should be in the adult system.

That’s great and all and everyone involved with this staggering reform must be commended. But.

But as I’ve written before, there are 14 and 15 and 16 and 17 year olds who are still treated as adults. And still subjected to the horrors of the adult criminal system and adult prisons:

Department of Correction data show that youth incarcerated in adult correctional facilities suffer alarming recidivism: 85 percent are re-arrested within two years of release, 62 percent are convicted of new crimes, and 70 percent return to prison on a new charge or parole violation.

Pursuant to C.G.S. 46b-127, any child 14 and older, who is accused of a Class B or A felony is automatically transferred to adult court and treated like an adult. There is no discretion; the legislature, in their “hard on crime”  binges in the 90s, took that power away from the prosecutor and the judge. At the same time, they legislature removed the defendant’s seat at the table. The defense can no longer put on a hearing or ask that the case remain in juvenile court.

Even when the case is in adult court, no one except the prosecutor has the authority to decide to send it back. There’s no oversight and, unlike New Jersey [PDF], our legislature and courts haven’t decided that the decision to treat 14 year olds like adults is important enough to warrant that someone, somewhere state their reasons for doing so on the record. There is absolutely no accountability and the only thing that matters is checking off a box on a list.

So, you say, that’s fine. Even a 14 year old should be held accountable for a serious crime. No doubt. But do you know the punishments Class A and B felonies expose a teenager to? Class B felonies have a 20 year maximum and Class A 25 years, both longer than the life that the teenager would have lived up to that point.

Making matters worse is the mandatory-minimums. There is a lengthy list of crimes for which 14 year old children have to be tried as adults which carry mandatory minimum sentences of 5 or 10 years. And that means no matter how much anyone thinks it’s wrong, the child must get that time in jail. Minimum.

According to the data in this report, in 2010, approximately 170 children were automatically transferred to adult court and kept there and treated as adults. How many of them are now serving long, mandatory prison sentences in adult court? Whose 14 year old is going through absolute hell?

When the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, it made no distinction between 14, 15, 16 and 17  year olds. Because the Court recognized that they were, after all, children. Why do we insist differently?

Our decisions rested not only on common sense — on what “any parent knows” — but on science and social science as well. Id., at 569, 125 S.Ct. 1183. In Roper, we cited studies showing that “`[o]nly a relatively small proportion of adolescents’” who engage in illegal activity “`develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.’” Id., at 570, 125 S.Ct. 1183 (quoting Steinberg & Scott, Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, 1014 (2003)). And in Graham, we noted that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds” — for example, in “parts of the brain involved in behavior control.” 560 U.S., at ___, 130 S.Ct., at 2026.[5] We reasoned that those findings — 2465*2465 of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences — both lessened a child’s “moral culpability” and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his “`deficiencies will be reformed.’” Id., at ___, 130 S.Ct., at 2027 (quoting Roper, 543 U.S., at 570, 125 S.Ct. 1183).  Roper and Graham emphasized that the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.

Children are different. Let’s continue to treat them that way.


Not even wrong on individual voir dire

It’s barely been two years, but Connecticut’s resident celebrity lawyer Norm Pattis is at it again, calling for an end to individual sequestered voir dire. Two years have passed since the last time I noticed Norm make these demands and I see that the passage of time hasn’t made him any less wrong. You can read my previous posts for general discussions of why individual voir dire is better than group, so I’m going to focus this on rebutting some of the bullshit he writes today:

Only in Connecticut do we question potential jurors one at a time, each outside the presence of the others.

Sorry, but no. That’s just not true. That’s the basic premise of his argument and that’s false. Many states have provisions that allow for jurors to be questioned individually, either in the court or in chambers (!) on subjects of particular sensitivity. Why? If individual voir dire were no different than group, then such an allowance would be superfluous and unnecessary. That’s because it’s pretty easy to deduce that people are more willing to share things that are private or embarrassing or even offensive and prejudicial when they are alone and not being overheard by their peers.

And let’s remember that the goal of voir dire is to pick a fair and impartial jury that will – in criminal cases – decide the freedom and liberty of an individual.

The propensity’s on the other foot

Prosecutors and judges – and law and order types in general – are always on about “once a criminal, always a criminal”, and frankly, given some of the recidivism rates of our clients, sometimes I tend to think there’s some truth to some of it before I come to my senses.

Which is why I really enjoyed this delicious bite of schadenfreude. Remember the three cops in this video beating the tasered man in a park in Bridgeport? (I mean, how could you not? It was three days ago.) Turns out two of them are the subject of a previous separate brutality complaint. Filed by a disabled man. Shame on you, officers.

On May 23, 2011, three days after the Beardsley Park beating reportedly took place, Officer Christina Arroyo stopped Ramon Sierra for questioning, Sierra claims in a letter that he wrote to Chief Joseph Gaudett Jr. seeking an investigation.

Another officer, Elson Morales — who is one of the officers identified in the Beardsley Park videotape — soon arrived at the scene at the corner of Boston and Noble avenues.

Sierra said that, without warning, Morales “put his hands on me, and I asked him what he was doing.”  “The next thing I knew, Officer Morales and an officer later identified as Officer (Joseph) Lawlor both threw me violently to the ground, and on the way down, the left side of my face struck one of the police cars on the scene, causing a bad laceration,” the complaint states.  Lawlor is also identified in the Beardsley Park videotape.  Sierra said that one of the officers then told him to put his hands behind his back, but because he has limited use of his right arm, he was unable to do so. Sierra said that he is disabled and is partially paralyzed on the left side as well as having limited mobility on his right.  “I told the officers this, but they continued to assault me violently, finally handcuffing my hands in front of my body,” Sierra wrote in his letter to Gaudett.

So what happened to Sierra? Exactly the same thing that happens to people who “force” officers to use “physical force”: