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Legal decisions that tick jurors off

Wednesday, August 11, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

Two recent legal events (an arrest and the overturning of a conviction) have resulted in a lot of commentary by aggravated citizens.  Those who have served on juries tend to have more positive things to say about jury service than those who have never served—but the reality is there is much in the media to tick potential jurors off.  And of course, the vast volume of sound verdicts by jurors are simply not as much fun for the press to cover, so…  Recently, two decisions have struck chords with jurors and resulted in them expressing a perspective that something is seriously wrong with our criminal justice system.

The Warren Jeffs retrial

Warren Jeffs (known as the “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—aka FLDS) was convicted in September, 2007 of coercing a 14 year old girl into marrying her 19 year old cousin. Jeffs was charged with two counts in being an accomplice in the rape of a teenage girl. Many doubted Jeffs could be convicted in Utah. But convicted he was. Now,as of July 28, 2010, Jeffs’ conviction has been overturned by the Utah Supreme Court on a technicality. In less than a week, there are more than 1600 comments about the ruling. Most of them are from ticked off citizens who think this should never have happened. Stories like this one, regardless of their legal merit, enrage the public.

The Grim Sleeper arrest

On July 7, 2010, Los Angeles Police arrested a man they believe to be a serial killer dubbed the ‘Grim Sleeper’. They charged Lonnie Franklin, Jr. with at least 11 murders between 1985 and 2007.  That first day, it was reported that:

“Franklin’s arrest was the first successful use of a DNA investigative tool known as “familial” searching in California. Familial searching, approved by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown at the urging of Cooley and other prosecutors, allows investigators to pursue partial genetic matches to crime scene evidence when the suspect’s DNA profile is not in the state database.”

Later on July 7, 2010, an article was published detailing how LAPD had followed the DNA trail to the alleged perpetrator. And the next day (July 8, 2010) questions began to arise about whether it was fair to use family DNA to catch a killer. Before another week went by, the debate had been framed as either a tool to protect communities or an invasion of privacy smacking of racial profiling. And comments show people are unhappy on either side of the debate.  Those who think it makes sense to allow ‘familial searching’ point to the reality that it may be the only way to catch dangerous criminals. Those who think it goes too far say relatives who are innocent can be dragged into situations over which they have no control and no involvement.

The lesson for us in this is to make sure and explain ‘why’ the rules are important. Explain ‘why’ they can’t use the internet to research the case, and explain how reliable (or not) forensic evidence is. To be optimally persuasive,  you have to educate, inform, and bring jurors along with you in the story. It won’t keep things from happening that may rub jurors the wrong way. But it gives them a framework to understand “why” and while that framework may not help them feel good about their decision, it comforts them in their distress.

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