Speed dating for justice

Early reports (by way of the Star Tribune) say the amount of media coverage in the Amy Senser case was the focus today as jury selection got underway.

As the trial got underway at about 9:20 Monday morning, Hennepin County District Judge Daniel Mabley told potential jurors that there has been a lot of media coverage of the case. He then mentioned a questionnaire that had been sent to the jurors last week about that coverage.

In court, he asked how many people had seen or heard news coverage of the case since the questionnaire was sent out. Mabley took note of the ones who raised their hands.

Jury selection is tough on people whose careers involve telling people what’s going on because the answer to the judge’s question usually confirms that many people — sometimes most people — aren’t paying attention.

Of the people who raised their hand in answer to the judge’s question, most said they hadn’t seen much media coverage.

One who had acknowledged seeing a lot of coverage is still in the jury pool, after promising he could make a fair decision on the facts. We’ll see if someone who pays attention to the news is judged worthy or whether the ones who don’t know much about the biggest criminal story of 2011 make it.

Either way, the question of who makes a good juror is the stuff science is made of, or –as one lawyer puts it — “speed dating for justice.”

In most cases, lawyers look for the basics: people who are smart, can understand what’s going on in court and can make decisions. They have their eye out for people who will be able to control things when deliberations start. After that, it’s often a free-for-all, and many lawyers have their own preferences.

“I love mailmen. I don’t know what it is. They are all nice, friendly, talkative souls. They just seem to be happy, warm human beings,” says Keith Mitnik, of Morgan & Morgan, P.A., who has selected some 100 juries in his career. He has received multiple verdicts over $1 million and teaches the art of jury selection.

Engineers? Teachers? Military? Young? Old? Men? Women?

“I like engineers,” Mansbach said. “They tend to think logically and won’t be swayed by emotion.”

Some lawyers see teachers as more liberal and lenient because they deal with children. Military folks are sometimes favored because they know how to follow instructions and the law. Young people might be easily swayed by older jurors. Older people may be more conservative. Men might be good for a female client, but in general older men may be grouchier than younger men. Women may be good for clients suffering from breast cancer but may be tougher on a female rape victim who may appear to them to have acted inappropriately.

Jamie Harrison, who writes a blog at the University of Maryland, argues the system is antiquated.

Who is the perfect juror? Lawyers search for jurors who are so dimly aware of, and participate so infrequently in, their society that they have never come into contact with anything that might have provided them with information that they might use to form an intelligent and informed decision. This is because the attorneys want the jurors to only be conscious of information provided to them in court. A perfect juror, in their eyes, is a blank slate who can be effectively swayed by the words of lawyers. It makes no difference that adults who are “blank slates” are in this condition for a reason. So, by the process of negative selection, we arrive at a jury that is populated with individuals who are the least likely to employ complicated, nuanced reasoning when presented with evidence in court.

Having a jury of simple folk may have been workable in an age where the Cotton Gin represented the height of ingenuity, but is simply inadequate in modern times. Much of the physical evidence that jurors are expected to interpret today is highly technical, and many of the terms that will eventually decide guilt or innocence have definitions with multiple layers that require a depth of understanding to apply in real life. If the jury, during deliberations, recognizes this dilemma and asks for clarification or explanation of terms, they are usually told that this assistance would be inappropriate. This leaves them to grope about for a verdict with the same utter ignorance with which they first came to the courtroom. Confused jurors tend to ignore evidence, which favors the defendant

Question: Do you think you could sit on the Senser jury?