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Jury sequestration: “Not even the Bible is left in your hotel room”

Monday, June 17, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

A Gideon Bible where it's often found, in a hotel nightstand.It’s no party for the sequestered juror. No morning paper. No TV. No internet cable or WiFi access in your room. No phone. They even take the Bible from your bedside table. While jury sequestration is often requested in high-profile trials, it is rare to actually have it happen. Jodi Arias asked for it and was refused. So did Conrad Murray. Casey Anthony’s jury was sequestered for 43 days—and rather than do an official change of venue, the jurors in her case were chosen in Clearwater, Florida and then shipped 100 miles to Orlando, Florida without access to cell phones or internet. Charles Manson’s jury was sequestered for 225 days. Manson’s jury held the record until the OJ Simpson jury was sequestered for 265 days.

Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson’s recent decision to sequester the Zimmerman jury means all 10 people [6 jurors and four alternates] will stay in a “hotel for the duration of the trial, which is expected to take two to four weeks”. While the Zimmerman trial is not expected to run longer than one month and the jury selection itself is expected to take at least as long as the trial, “it cost the state of Florida $350,000 to sequester the jury in the Casey Anthony trial for 43 days”.   Judge Nelson reversed her initial decision not to sequester the jurors after several jurors appeared to be trying to obtain seats on the jury for their own personal reasons.

A potential juror at the George Zimmerman trial who told the court he had little knowledge of the case apparently indicated otherwise on Facebook. I CAN tell you THIS. ‘Justice’…IS Coming, the juror appeared to write of the Zimmerman case on the Facebook page for the Coffee Party Progressives, a page with which he was confronted in Judge Debra Nelsons courtroom.”

Supporters of sequestration say that the isolation means you hear the evidence without media bias or community pressures. You focus on the evidence and make a decision based on what is admissible and not what is posted on social media sites or discussed in the ever-present media. Jurors who are sequestered bond and some say they can thus deliberate more collaboratively.

Critics (and they are many) say that sequestered jurors get “too chummy”. They begin to think so similarly that the goal of a group coming together with diverse opinions is completely lost to “group-think”. There is a very real possibility that jurors will be irritated by being cooped up for so long and stop paying attention, react against both parties, et cetera. And sometimes, they fall in love or various permutations on that theme.

Finally, it is often said (in hindsight) that jurors fail to deliberate thoughtfully following sequestration because they “just want to go home”. This “just want to go home” theory was often used to explain the “quick” Casey Anthony jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict. Over the last 20 years I have interviewed thousands of jurors and mock jurors, and this is not my experience. Jurors invariably take their responsibility very seriously. Given the seriousness with which jurors approach their task, this idea simply is simply wrong, as I explained at the time on CNN’s Opinion page.

Still others question if it can even make sense anymore in our lives of constant media saturation to sequester juries. Attorneys still seem to think so. Three recent examples of why attorneys request sequestration are the Google mistrial rationale, the Nancy Grace mistrial rationale, and the Media meddling rationale.

Google mistrial rationale: “In an age when Google is a verb, and many rely on their phones to wake them up, schedule their lives, and pay their bills, is it still reasonable to expect juries to make decisions in a vacuum? Yet sequestration may be the only option. Judges have struggled to keep up with a growing number of outlets, and do not communicate about the case has become do not Tweet.”

Nancy Grace mistrial rationale: Nancy Grace’s constant pro-Prosecution coverage of the Casey Anthony trial resulted in the Conrad Murray Defense requesting sequestration at least while Nancy Grace was on the air. “Attorneys for Dr. Conrad Murray said the case should be sequestered to prevent the panel from being influenced by media reports. Specifically, the jury should be sequestered during the hours that television pundit Nancy Grace is on the air.”

Stop the media from meddling rationale: “Lawyers for accused serial killer James Whitey Bulger today threatened to ask to have his jury sequestered for the anticipated four-month duration of his blockbuster trial, arguing the Boston Globe is poisoning the pool in its fight to free two reporters from the defense witness list.”

The financial troubles in the court system coupled with the strains sequestration places on jurors  and complicated by the fears (and often reality) of public attacks on jurors rendering an unpopular opinion, will make juror sequestration a hot topic for years to come.

[If you still want to know more about this topic, you can see an April 2013 slide show on sequestration (with all the nitty gritty details) here.]

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