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If You’re a Juror, Don’t Ask The District Attorney on a Date

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A word to the wise: if you’re a juror in a criminal trial, and find yourself attracted to one of the lawyers, it’s probably not a good idea to slip a note to the judge asking for the “cutie” Assistant District Attorney’s name and phone number, while also asking if the judge can recommend a good divorce lawyer.

The defense attorney thought that this amounted to juror misconduct, and moved for a mistrial. The judge, after considering the arguments from both lawyers, and speaking with the juror in question, decided that the juror, while showing exceptionally poor judgment, did not demonstrate bias toward either party in the case, and refused to declare a mistrial. The defendant was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to prison.

The defense appealed, making the same argument that they made at the trial level. The highest court in New York has finally weighed in, and agrees with the lower courts that such action, while inadvisable and inappropriate, does not necessarily warrant a mistrial or the overturning of a conviction.

Still, the fact that such conduct even occurred is somewhat disturbing, and the fact that it created a plausible (though ultimately rejected) grounds for a mistrial is telling. Courts are extremely wary of anything that might give the impression that a juror is biased, or that there has been improper contact between a juror and one of the parties to a case. If you’ve ever served on a jury, you were probably told by the judge that any contact with the lawyers or parties on either side of the case was 100% prohibited. The judge usually says that it doesn’t matter how innocent or trivial the contact is.

This is because a public perception of impartiality is absolutely essential for the judicial system to maintain a sense of legitimacy. And if members of the public see an attorney or judge speaking with a juror outside the courtroom, even if it’s over something as trivial as the weather, they might get the impression that something improper is going on, undermining the public’s trust in the impartiality of the legal system.

Now, in this particular case, the judge decided that the juror’s conduct, while very inappropriate, did not serve as evidence that she was prejudiced toward one side or the other. She simply found the DA attractive, or was possibly making an extremely ill-conceived attempt at humor. After being advised by the judge and, presumably, both attorneys that her conduct was unacceptable, she indicated that she understood this, and assured all parties involved that she could render an impartial verdict.

The court, and subsequent appeals courts, seemed to believe her, and upheld the jury’s conviction.

Nonetheless, this should serve as a cautionary tale for jurors. If you’re called to serve on a jury, you’re playing an essential role in America’s justice system. The U.S. is one of the few countries that still uses juries in most trials. Although the jury system, as we know it, originated in the United Kingdom, that country uses juries far less often than it did before. The jury system is certainly open to criticism, but it’s currently the system we’ve got, and it’s therefore up to every juror to ensure that it operates with integrity and fairness.

So, if you’re called to serve on a jury, here’s a word of advice that should go without saying: do whatever the judge tells you, and don’t initiate any type of contact, no matter how innocent or trivial, with the lawyers or parties to the case.

In a broader sense, simply remember that you are charged with deciding the fate of another human being. If you go into jury duty determined to treat it with the seriousness it deserves, chances are you’ll avoid pulling any shenanigans like the juror in this story.

Remember, it’s entirely possible that you could be on trial one day. If this happens, wouldn’t you want your fate decided by jurors who take their responsibility seriously? I know I would.

Ken LaMance

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