Category Archives: juries

Martin, Zimmerman and the colors of injustice

This is not a Trayvon Martin post; this is not a George Zimmerman post. For that, go read these fine pieces with which I wholeheartedly agree.

This isn’t even a post about race, although race certainly fuels much of it.

This is a post about injustice. Injustice doesn’t come in one shape: the acquittal of a seemingly obviously guilty white-ish man for murdering a black teenager. Injustice comes in many stripes, shades and hues. Injustice is smaller than the Zimmerman acquittal and greater than it too. Injustice happens every day before your eyes, but you don’t see it.

Injustice is Warren Hill. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to kill mentally retarded people. Georgia is a part of the United States. Warren Hill is a prisoner in the State of Georgia. Warren Hill is mentally retarded. His experts agree. The State’s experts agree. Yet Warren Hill is scheduled to die tomorrow. A mentally retarded man, in direct contravention to the Constitution of the United States. Because it’s Georgia and Georgia does what it wants.

Injustice is the hundreds of thousand of black men who went to jail for years longer than their white counterparts because of an imaginary crack-cocaine disparity.

Injustice is when children like Trayvon Martin or younger are arrested and treated as adults by a harsh, unrepentant adult criminal system, sending them to jail automatically for a decade or more.

Injustice isn’t at the fringes of the criminal justice system; it isn’t in the extreme corners and reaches, rearing its head every 6 months or so for you to vent your moral outrage at.

Injustice happens to the wrongfully convicted, like Ronald Cotton or James Tillman or Miguel Roman or the hundreds of others who were convicted by duly sworn juries just doing their jobs.

Injustice is every day. Injustice happens like a death by thousand cuts. Injustice happens to the guilty and the innocent. And every injustice to the guilty is injustice to the innocent.

Injustice is when we spend millions of dollars to fund police and prisons and prosecutors and our legislators increase the number of crimes and multiply the punishment without nary a thought to covering the costs of defense. Injustice is when your rights are in the hands of underpaid, overworked lawyers who are doing their best but are overwhelmed by an overwhelming system. Injustice is when “tough on crime” trumps the promise of equality in access to justice.

Injustice is when prosecutors get to decide what to turn over and what not to. Injustice is when they don’t turn over evidence proving innocence. Injustice is when the courts protect their illegal and unethical ways.

Injustice is when the police department in New York has a policy of stopping every minority and “frisking them”, because they were “wearing clothes commonly used in a crime“. Injustice is when the police department wants the power to stop anyone on the street, for any reason, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Injustice is when “technicalities” are used to deny people their appeals, to forcibly impose convictions no matter the Constitutional violations or error. Injustice is when we elevate form over substance, format and rules over rights and freedoms. Injustice is when you punish people for exercising their rights.

Injustice is when they use fear to scare you into giving up your rights, telling you tales of the terrorist or the criminal whom you must punish.

Injustice is when you believe that you have nothing in common with the individual subjected to the full force of the government’s ire. Injustice is when you believe that you will never be a persecuted minority. Injustice is when you believe that you have nothing to hide, so you don’t say a word when they illegally look inside my house.

Injustice is when you pay attention when the media tells you to and you stop thinking for yourself. Injustice is when you go into court, predisposed to convict.

Injustice is when you think justice only applies to the innocent or the likeable. Injustice is when you decide that one set of rules apply to you and another set of rules to those that you don’t like. Injustice comes in a dazzling array of colors. Do you have the courage to not be afraid anymore?

Can you stop being colorblind to injustice?

Racism in the death penalty? We’re North Carolina after all!


What do you call people from North Carolina? Whatever that word is, they were faced with a choice: do they appear to be racist murderers or just plain Northeastern Liberal Sissies?

I know what I’d choose and I know what stereotype says that the North Carolinians would choose. And proving that stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, they chose the former. The Senate just repealed (here‘s the bill) the Racial Justice Act, which allows inmates to use statistics to prove that their death sentences are obtained based on racial injustice.

Just last year I was congratulating the Second in Flight State for a decision reversing the death sentence for a man who proved that racial bias played a significant role in the jury selection process. The opinion by Judge Weeks [PDF] said that:

Race played a “persistent, pervasive and distorting role” in jury selection and couldn’t be explained other than that “prosecutors have intentionally discriminated” against Robinson and other capital defendants statewide, Weeks said. Prosecutors eliminated black jurors more than twice as often as white jurors, according to a study by two Michigan State University law professors Weeks said he found highly reliable.

The opinion relied in part on a study [PDF] by Michigan State University. This was all made possible due to the Racial Justice Act, an avant-garde piece of legislation enacted in North Carolina that did exactly what the United States Supreme Court prohibited a quarter century ago in McCleskey v. Kemp.

Are you sure?



We put a lot of trust in juries. We pluck every day people, with varying backgrounds and varying life experiences and education levels and skills and throw them into a courtroom where were bombard them with “evidence” and legal arguments and ask them to sift through it all and determine the “truth”, all without giving them any training or a dry run.

And then we trust in their decision, no matter how absurd or inconsistent or strange it is. And that trust – that finality – in their decision is revered, put on a pedestal and those that dare to approach it or question it are roughed up at the pointy end of a bayonet.

But sometimes things happen that made you think: do they really know what they’re doing? Are their decisions really worthy of this level of reverence? (Spoiler: the answer is yes and no.)

As I’ve said before, I’d love to know what a jury is thinking while they’re deliberating and even after they’ve deliberated. I want to have a dialogue with them, to explain why they were wrong or see what I didn’t see. But we never get that chance. We never know if the jurors went home secure in their decision, or if they had a doubt but weren’t sure if it was a reasonable doubt, because who the hell knows what that means. Given the chance, would they undo what they did?

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.

It’s not like you knew you had that right, anyway.

We can all name certain rights that we have: the right to counsel, the privilege against self-incrimination, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to say whatever the hell you want, the right to have the arms of a bear, etc. But do we think that these are all the rights we have? Especially in the criminal context, there are various other rights that each person has that we may not necessarily be aware of. The right to a trial by jury, for example, is well known, but it is actually the right to a public trial by jury. [TL;DR at end of the post.]

Well sure, that seems obvious enough: you can’t have a trial in a closed courtroom, or in a judge’s chamber somewhere. According to Presley v. Georgia [PDF], the Constitution guarantees it. But did you know that a courtroom, while seemingly open, might be “closed” to the public? And did you know that, even if you didn’t know that, your lawyer may make the decision to say that’s okay without telling you?

That’s what the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court concluded in Commonwealth v. Lavoie last month. In Lavoie, they were conducting public voir dire, which last two days. Apparently because there were so many prospective jurors, the court sheriffs asked family members of the defendant to leave the courtroom and told them they couldn’t be present because there was no room for them. The lawyer didn’t notice; the judge didn’t notice. The defendant did know it and he was annoyed, but didn’t say anything, because, you know, he’s a defendant in a criminal trial and he’s not exactly in charge of much.

So he got convicted and some years later filed a motion for new trial arguing that his Constitutional right to a public trial was violated. The State naturally objected, claiming almost preposterously that he had implicitly waived the right because he didn’t say anything to anyone and neither did his lawyer. Lavoie responded, rather logically:

there was no explicit waiver by the defendant or his attorney, and … defense counsel could not waive his client’s rights without ever discussing the issue of his right to a public trial with him. The defendant further states that a waiver of this right could not have occurred where he did not know he had such a right or understand that his counsel made a decision concerning that right.

In other words: how the hell do I waive something I don’t know I had the right to? Quite simply, says the Court, because your lawyer made a tactical decision to do so. And there, kids, is how the courts get away with almost anything: by couching everything in terms of a decision of tactics, the courts shift the power of enforcement from the defendant to his lawyer. Even when his lawyer doesn’t remember consciously making that tactical decision. Like, oh, I don’t know, Lavoie’s lawyer:

Defense counsel stated that it was not his usual practice to object when court officers cleared the court for jury selection because he was aware that space was often insufficient, and he did not want to interfere with “court officers who he perceived engaged in a difficult job” or to have family members sitting near potential jurors. Defense counsel also expressed his belief that family members could present a distraction and, specific to this case, stated his concern that the defendant’s mother “was an emotional individual [who would] be a distraction.”

Although defense counsel had no specific recollection of court officers excluding the defendant’s family during jury selection and did not discuss this issue with the defendant, “he had consciously decided prior to this trial not to object to the removal of family members or supporters during the jury selection process in courtroom 12B.”

The emphasis is all mine just to highlight the bullshit. I’ll bet you a box of Krispy Kreme donuts this attorney, when seeing a copy of the motion raising this claim, thought: “oh crap, I never even thought of that!” And if you’ve practiced criminal law for longer than a second, you’ve already run into some CYA lawyer who’s told you to claim it was a tactical decision, no matter what. Courts are all too happy to oblige, because really, he was guilty, right? And that’s all that matters?

[Because really that’s what the value of your rights are. Are you guilty enough? That’s the justification for repeated violations of Constitutional rights: harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. “Well yes, this confession was obtained illegally, but he was really guilty, so it doesn’t matter” and on and on.

The legal gymnastics really are a sight to behold: 1. The defendant has a lawyer, so the lawyer’s word is as good as the defendant’s. 2. Except when the lawyer speaking doesn’t mean anything [State v. Johnson, PDF] if the defendant doesn’t speak. 3. Even if either and or both speak, it’s not sufficient because they didn’t explain their objection properly. 4. Even if they objected, they didn’t list all the possible grounds for objection so it’s waived5. If they said the rights words, they didn’t object a second time and that was essential. 6. If they objected a second time and properly preserved the issue, it doesn’t matter because he’s guilty anyway.

And yet we puzzle why this happens over and over again and why judges and prosecutors and cops don’t learn: because there’s no punishment for doing it wrong. It’s like having a cat that constantly eats your birds but you don’t do anything because, well, you don’t give it enough food, so it’s justified.

So our rights will always be infringed upon because there’s no corresponding punishment for violating them: and you and I and the rest of us “non-criminals” are just as implicit in this erosion as the judicial system. We cry and moan about “guilty” people getting off on “technicalities”. The Constitution isn’t a technicality. It shouldn’t matter how guilty you think someone is; a violation of fundamental rights should have appropriate remedies. Because guess who decides if someone is guilty enough for the error to be harmless? Judges and courts and the legal system. It’s a system that feeds itself. And we will become fodder.]

The right to an open court in criminal proceedings is “an effective restraint on possible abuse of judicial power,” In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 270 (1948), which functions for “the benefit of the accused; that the public may see he is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned.” Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 46 (1984). Yet, it is okay for a lawyer to implicitly do away with this right on behalf of his client without ever consulting or mentioning it to him?

It seems that the courtroom of justice has long been closed.

TL;DR because apparently everyone is stupid now and has no attention spans: your lawyer can waive rights on your behalf that you never knew you had because justice.

H/T: Juries



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.

To pick or not to pick: learning the unlearnable

While lawyers may debate the effectiveness of jury selection, none will doubt the importance of it. The problem is, no one knows how to do it well. Some may think they do, but really, they’re just getting lucky. For the task is an incomprehensible one: to get 40-60 complete strangers to open up to you about their personal feelings and beliefs, to somehow get a sense of whether they’re in your favor or against all without mentioning the specific facts of the case at hand. As Mark Bennett says in his lecture on jury selection (more on that in a second), what we really want to do, as lawyers, is to take each juror aside and say “Psst, here are the facts. For me or against me?” and obviously we can’t. So we have to dance a dance in which we ask general questions in order to boil this stranger down to some stereotypes and make a best guess. It’s a pretty hopeless practice, made worse in jurisdictions where judges are the only ones asking questions or where there is no individual voir dire.

[To be sure, as currently practiced, jury selection is easier for prosecutors. They’re not interested in learning about the person or getting them to open up; they merely want to reinforce the strong desire in people to follow the lead of authority and affirm the bias that most jurors have toward conviction. But, it can be argued, that practice is divergent from the prosecutor’s true charge: which is to seek justice, not obtain a conviction. Sure, you can pick a jury by stating a general proposition of law and then asking if the juror can follow the court’s instruction, but there’s nothing functionally different between that and picking the first 12 jurors that walk in the door, something that I’ve suggested to prosecutors over the years, but for some reason they never take me seriously.]