Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How isolated can court keep its jurors?

Being a reporter-type person who has periodically covered courthouses, I am aware firsthand of the degree to which the courts try to keep potential jurors isolated from the real world.

There is always the admonition to quit reading the newspaper, on the off chance that the case in which the juror is serving is considered interesting enough to be written up. Since any worthwhile reporter is going to root around and find out details beyond what comes up in testimony (including some personal observations, to give readers a full understanding of what is happening in court), there are bound to be things in print that a judge would rather not have a juror know about.

THAT IS PARTICULARLY important in cases where, for whatever reason, things are going haywire for the prosecution. Coverage will reflect that, but a judge wants the jurors to be unaware of any of that.

Plus, in a really big trial, the news coverage isn’t contained to the courtroom. Activities taking place elsewhere will also be written about. Yet a judge would rather that the jurors think the world ends at the courtroom walls.

Yet people do manage to hear things. They gossip. In today’s world with the so-called “social media” becoming all-important, it becomes possible (for some, even preferable) for people to get information anywhere, no matter how much someone tries to isolate them from the rest of society.

That seems to be the situation with regards to the trial of Rod Blagojevich, where the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper reported Monday that some of the potential jurors in that particular criminal case were overheard discussing the news coverage.

WHICH MEANS THEY heard the news coverage.

Which means the courts now have to figure out if information is so accessible that there is no way they can isolate people enough from the coverage of the goofy political world otherwise known as Milorod-land. What the newspaper bases their report on is an interview with a man who got rejected as a juror. He now says he recalls being in the juror room and overhearing a conversation among some of his one-time juror colleagues who were discussing the news stories that had been in the newspapers during the previous weekend.

At this point, the jury selection process was taking place. So the coverage was about that process. Which means the stories were about the potential jurors themselves.

IT SEEMS THE potential jurors, if the one juror reject’s interview is to be believed, were amused at the way in which the newspapers wrote about Judge James Zagel’s attempts to knock dow those people who were coming up with what the judge considered to be extreme excuses to try to get out of serving on the Blagojevich jury.

The newspaper reports that while none of the people who actually spoke about this made it onto the Blagojevich jury, at least one person who is now on the jury was within earshot.

So is it possible that the jury pool has been tainted by the fact that the news coverage of this particular trial is going to emphasize all of its absurdities?

I’m going to be curious to see how Zagel tries to address this potential problem. It is not like Zagel didn’t make his desires clear early on.

HE MADE A statement to all the jurors that they were not to expose themselves to anything about the case that occurred outside the courtroom. No newspapers or television/radio news broadcasts, no reading their e-mail (in case someone decides to send out some stupid Blagojevich-themed joke to all their friends that spreads to the masses), no Twitter or Facebook (which some people are using to make brief observations or spread newspaper/broadcast reports about the case.

Are we going to get the muffled sound of a juror being yelled at after being taken into a private room for a “discussion” with the judge? Or is this severe enough that we only made it about one week into what could be a four- or five-month trial before jurors have to start being expelled?

I doubt things will get that out of hand. I suspect the last thing the judge wants to do is start tapping into the pool of alternate jurors this early in the process. Because running out of people and having to declare a mistrial would become Blagojevich’s fantasy.

Thwart the process now and drag it out into the future (even though I know anyone who thinks the federal government would ultimately drop the case because it is being prolonged too much is being naïve).

BUT IT MAKES me wonder in today’s world if it is possible to isolate people so much that they can truly be the type of juror who has never heard of Rod Blagojevich or the situation within Illinois state government in recent years.

Because I’m not sure I would want someone whose intellectual curiosity is so limited that they have no interest in public policy that they can easily ignore news coverage of such issues. Is that really who we want serving on a jury?


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