Tsarnaev: Death penalty cases are won or lost during jury selection

December 29, 2014

Monday, December 29, 2014

Good evening:

Most death penalty lawyers will tell you that a death penalty case is won (i.e., LWOP) or lost (i.e., death sentence) during jury selection. That is because we have seen and done it all and have generally mastered the art of trying cases so that we know to a reasonable certainty whether the jury will convict or acquit the client.

Today we are going to learn about and discuss jury selection in a federal death penalty trial. As you will soon discover, jury selection is more aptly described as deselection. Each side attempts to get rid of the prospective jurors they do not want by challenging them for cause or by peremptory challenge.

1) Challenge for Cause: No limit to the number of challenges, but you have to satisfy the judge that the prospective juror whom you challenge cannot fairly and impartially try the case or follow the court’s instructions. Your challenge will be denied, if you fail to convince the judge.

2) Peremptory Challenge: Each side gets 20 challenges. You don’t have to give a reason to support your challenge, but you cannot use your challenges to exclude prospective jurors solely on the basis of race, gender or religion. For example, the prosecution cannot use peremptory challenges to exclude Muslims. They would have to genuinely have other reasons or the challenge would be denied. The defense has a pending motion to increase the number of peremptory challenges to 30 per side because of extensive pretrial publicity. The government opposes the motion and it will likely be denied since the rule is quite specific about 20.

Jurors will be questioned in three ways. First, they will be asked to fill out a questionnaire. Then they will questioned together as a group and thereafter individually, depending on their answers to some of the questions on the questionnaire or during group voir dire. BTW, voir dire means to question. Attorney voir dire occurs when the lawyer do the questioning.

1,000 prospective jurors have been summoned in the Tsarnaev case. The goal is to seat a jury of 12, plus alternates who will well and truly try the case according to the instructions given by the court.

The first task in the selection process is to go through the questionnaires and excuse people who cannot serve because of the length of the trial, economic hardship, poor health, bias (related to or know victims, witnesses, lawyers or court personnel), prepaid vacations, etc. This usually reduces the pool of prospective jurors by about 50% or more.

Since this is a highly publicized death penalty case, the two major areas of inquiry during voir dire will be: (1) effect of pretrial publicity on ability to fairly and impartially try the case based only on the evidence introduced in court and, assuming the defendant is found guilty, (2) effect of opinions about the death penalty on a juror’s ability to follow the jury instructions that require weighing the aggravating evidence and mitigating evidence in deciding whether to sentence the defendant to death or to LWOP. Jurors will be questioned individually out of the presence of the others to avoid influencing them with their responses regarding these topics and possibly religious beliefs, since Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is allegedly a Muslim jihadist.

More specifically,

1) Pretrial publicity: The test is not whether someone has heard or read about the case. The test is whether they have formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused such that they would not be able to fairly and impartially try the case. They will be excused for cause, if the answer is “Yes.” If the answer is, “No” they will be questioned individually out of the presence of the others for more information to challenge or pass the juror for cause on the subject of pretrial publicity. If a challenge for cause is denied, the party asserting the challenge likely will use a peremptory challenge later on to get rid of that person.

2) Opinions about the death penalty: Jurors are told that they have to be questioned regarding their opinions about the death penalty before the trial starts because there will not be an opportunity to question them later, if the defendant is convicted. Therefore, they are told to assume guilt when they are questioned. Invariably, a majority of the time spent selecting a jury involves the death qualification process. The test is whether the prospective juror could weigh the aggravating and mitigating evidence and render a verdict according to the jury instructions. Anyone who would automatically vote for the death penalty, if the defendant is convicted as charged, will be excused for cause, Same is true for anyone who would automatically vote for LWOP because they are opposed to the death penalty. This is called death qualifying a jury and it inevitably produces conviction prone jurors because so-called scrupled jurors (who oppose the death penalty) are more likely to vote not guilty than guilty. This feature is another major reason why it’s so difficult to win a death penalty trial.

The goal will be to get a panel of probably 75 or more people who have been passed for cause by both sides. The size of the panel has to be large enough so that there will be enough people left to seat a jury of 12, plus the alternates. If each side uses its full complement of 20 peremptory challenges, that would reduce the panel by 40 people, and possibly a few more, if one side or the other successfully challenges the other side’s improper use of a peremptory challenge to get rid of people based solely on race, gender or religion. Each side also gets a peremptory challenge to assert for each alternate.

It’s OK to end up with a few too many. It’s not OK to end up without enough because then you have to bring in another group of people to question.

One of the extremely bizarre aspects of the death qualification process is the effort by defense counsel to save scrupled jurors from being excused for cause by getting them to admit that they could follow the instructions and impose the death penalty despite their opposition to it, if the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances. Similarly, prosecutors befuddle jurors who would automatically vote for the death penalty by attempting to get them to admit that they could vote LWOP despite their support for the death penalty, if the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating circumstances.In either case, the object is to force the opposing counsel to use one of their precious silver bullets (i.e., peremptory challenges). The hope is they will run out of ammo before you do and you’ll get some scrupled jurors on the jury.

That is more likely to happen in Massachusetts where a majority of the voters are against the death penalty than would be the case in Texas or Florida where you would be lucky to find a scrupled juror in a group of 1,000 people.

Last but not least, both sides will be on the lookout for possible ‘stealth jurors.’ They are agenda driven people who will lie to sneak on a jury and vote for a particular outcome, regardless of the evidence. This is called jury nullification when the stealth juror votes contrary to the evidence and the instructions. Both sides are likely to have support staff checking social media for potential stealth jurors.

It took 3-4 weeks for me to select a jury in every death penalty case that I tried. Then it took 6-9 months to try the cases.

Since federal court does not allow cameras or audio recordings in the courtroom, we will not be able to watch this fascinating process that is so critically important to the outcome of every trial.

And there you have it.

Game within the Game: Despite strong case prosecutor may lose Wafer trial in jury selection

June 20, 2014

Friday, June 20, 2014

Good evening:

Judge Dana Hathaway granted a prosecution motion today in the Theodore Wafer murder case that will permit them to provide the jury with transcripts of statements he made during his 911 call and subsequent interrogation by police regarding shooting and killing 19-year-old Renisha McBride.

Armed with a 12 gauge shotgun, he unlocked, opened his front door, and shot her in the face through the locked screen door in response to her knocking on his door early one morning before sunrise. She was unarmed.

He was charged with second degree murder and is claiming self-defense, even though he initially said he fired the gun accidentally.

Game within the Game:

Wafer has a classic were-you-lying-then-or-are-you-lying-now predicament to credibly explain why he said accident when he meant to say self-defense. Since the prosecutor wants transcripts of what he said, there must be other inconsistencies and contradictions that the prosecutor wants to use to skewer him.

People are better at remembering what they read compared to what they see or hear and their recall improves substantially beyond that, if they simultaneously read what they see and hear.

In other words, ain’t nothing in those statements that will help Mr. Wafer.

The Detroit Free Press reported this afternoon that Judge Hathaway continued the hearing to next Thursday (6/26) regarding the defense motion to introduce bad character evidence about Renisha McBride.

The defense is claiming that her social media, including photos on her cell phone, and school records are admissible to show that she had an aggressive and violent disposition.

She will also take up the defense motion to introduce evidence that the character of the neighborhood was changing and McBride may have been knocking on his door by mistake thinking a marijuana dealer lived there.

I do not believe that any of that evidence is admissible.

I am concerned about one thing the prosecutor said today.

The prosecution asked for a jury pool of 200 people today, saying it only plans to ask prospective jurors a few questions: Do you know about this case? What do you know about it? And can you be fair?

Game within the Game:

Colossal mistake equivalent to going to bed at night leaving your back door wide open with an engraved invitation to burglars to come in and steal everything while you sleep.

The problem of jury nullification by racially prejudiced stealth jurors determined to acquit white defendants who murder unarmed black victims, regardless of the evidence, is painfully real. The answers to those three questions will not help the prosecutor determine whether any potential juror is a stealth juror.

The prosecutor who said that is inviting disaster.

Trial is scheduled to start July 21st.

A few words about me: I rely on my 30-year experience as a felony criminal defense attorney and my three years experience as a law professor to analyze the game within the game explaining the applicable rules of law and procedure and the reasons why the lawyers and judges do what they do.

My goal is to assist readers to see through to the heart of a case despite the confusing turmoil of words and phrases that often conceal it.

To educate is to liberate.

If you enjoy and appreciate what I do, please make a donation.

Thank you,


Will the defendant testify or not testify?

July 6, 2013

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Good afternoon:

I write regarding whether the defendant should testify.

I advised my clients not to testify, unless there was some specific reason why I believed they had to testify. That reason typically would involve testifying about something that the jury would not otherwise know unless the client testifies. This is a common occurrence is self-defense cases and why most lawyers will say that a client must testify in such a case.

As Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei said yesterday, the use of deadly force in self-defense is unlawful unless the defendant reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering serious injury when he used deadly force. The reasonableness requirement means that the defendant’s conduct must be evaluated objectively by comparing his conduct to the conduct of a reasonable person in the same situation.

The jury of 6 women, 5 of whom are mothers, will decide whether the defendant acted reasonably.

The defendant is the only person who can tell them whether he believed he was in such danger when he shot Trayvon Martin. According to various witnesses who have testified, he described a situation to them that, if true, probably would objectively constitute such a danger. For the past year, his lawyer, Mark O’Mara has been aggressively selling the defendant’s story on national television and waiving the two bloody cell phone photographs of the back of the defendant’s head and his face as proof that the defendant acted reasonably. I think the national media has uncritically accepted O’Mara’s sales job and shamelessly promoted it.

The critical question, however, is whether the 6 women, 5 of whom are mothers, believe what the defendant told others. They are not required to believe anything he said. I doubt they will believe him, given his many contradictory statements, implausible claims, and the forensic evidence, particularly the DNA evidence, which proves that Trayvon Martin did not hit him 20-30 times in the face, grab his head and repeatedly slam it into a concrete sidewalk, or attempt to smother him by placing his hands over the defendant’s nose and mouth.

I believe the prosecution has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant provoked the encounter with Trayvon Martin by following him in a vehicle and then on foot after Trayvon attempted to elude him. He hunted him down and attempted to restrain him contrary to a request by the police dispatcher not to follow him and he never identified himself or explained why he was restraining him. Under these circumstances, Trayvon Martin was entitled to use reasonable force to defend himself, escalating to deadly force when the defendant pulled out his gun. Therefore, Trayvon Martin used lawful force to defend himself and the defendant’s use of force was unlawful.

If he were my client, I would tell him that this is my assessment.

If he responded with, “What about my mother identifying me as the person who screamed?” I would say she did not do so unequivocally. Sybrina Fulton did and she was credible.

I would tell him that he gets to make the call regarding whether to testify. Given my assessment that the jury is going to convict him, I would also tell him that his only chance to avoid conviction would be to testify and persuade those 6 women, 5 of them mothers, that they should not convict him.

I would explain the following information.

The burden of proof in all criminal cases in this country is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime charged. The defendant is presumed innocent throughout the trial and the jury must find him “not guilty” unless the prosecution overcomes the presumption of innocence by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The term “beyond a reasonable doubt” is generally defined as such a doubt as would exist in the mind of a reasonable person after fully and fairly considering all of the evidence or lack of evidence. The prosecution is not required to prove guilt beyond all doubt, just beyond a reasonable doubt. Generally, a reasonable doubt is a doubt for which a reason exists, as opposed to a speculative doubt or a mere suspicion. The Florida instruction states that a person is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt if they have an abiding belief in the truth of the charge. An abiding belief is a long lasting belief. The idea is that a juror is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt if they are sure that they will not change their mind sometime in the future due to some doubt they have about the strength of the evidence.

The definition of reasonable doubt is circular, which frustrates jurors who expect and want reasonable doubt quantified. For example, preponderance of the evidence, which is the burden of proof in a civil case, is defined as proving that a proposition is more likely so than not so or supported by more than 50% of the evidence. There is no equivalent percentage of certainty used to define reasonable doubt. I believe most trial lawyers and judges would agree that it’s possible that different juries hearing the same case could reach different conclusions. This is why attorney voir dire during jury selection and the use of cause and peremptory challenges to select a jury are so critically important.

Our legal system guards and protects the sanctity of the jury room and juror deliberations. A jury is never required to explain or justify its verdict. As a result, a jury actually gets to decide what constitutes reasonable doubt, even though they are never told that they have this power. The jury is a reflection of the community and it acts as the conscience of the community when it decides whether the prosecution has proved the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

I would tell him that if he can express his humanity and touch their hearts, he has a chance at manslaughter.

I would also tell him that he must tell the truth without any bullshit like he uttered on the Hannity Show.

He must admit when he lied, to whom he lied, and why he lied.

He must convince them that he acted out of fright, not anger.

I think he’s going to testify for all the wrong reasons because he has always been able to lie his way out of trouble.

Ain’t going to work this time.

I have one final reason for believing he will testify. His lawyers did not voir dire the prospective jurors on his right to remain silent and not testify. I always did that in my cases to make sure the jurors understood that they could not use his silence against him by presuming he had something to hide.

Ma’at, Justice, the Golden Rule and Jury Nullification

January 3, 2013

Thursday, January 3, 2013

I inadvertently muddied the waters last night on jury nullification when I responded without thinking to a question by Judy75201, who asked if the prosecution ever benefited from jury nullification. I said, “No.”

Whonoze corrected me using my own statement.

He said,

I believe the Prof. has already answered your question in the previous thread:

“Far more likely is the wrongful conviction of innocent people, which happens possibly as often as 20% of the cases.
“I fear racist jurors would increase the already unacceptable rate off wrongful convictions, if they could ignore the evidence pursuant to jury nullification and convict minority defendants who should be acquitted.
“That danger is an every day reality in the South.”

So if the defense has not met it’s burden, and, for example, an all white jury convicts a black defendant anyway, that’s an example of jury nullification that favors the prosecution.

Prof., perhaps you could explain to all of us what role the judge’s instructions to the jury play in all of this, and whether those are typically invoked for a verdict to be labeled as “nullification” rather than just “unexpected.”

The application of the label seems to be somewhat subjective, as some might consider the Simpson or Anthony verdicts to be nullification, while others would consider that the State did NOT meet its burden in either case, depending upon how each evaluates the evidence and argument presented at trial. Do I have that right?

I thought it over and here is my response.

Yes, I stand corrected. If a racist White jury convicts a Black defendant, despite a reasonable doubt, the prosecution benefits and the wrongfully convicted defendant loses.

Of course, we usually never know why a jury does what it does because jurors are not required to reveal why they did what they did and their deliberations are not recorded. Jury deliberations are sacrosanct and no one is permitted to be present in the jury room or to listen in on jury deliberations.

I did not follow the Anthony case, so I know little about it.

I think there was a reasonable doubt in the OJ case because I know the police planted pilfered blood evidence obtained at autopsy and broke the chain of custody creating all sorts of reasonable doubt. I was a DNA consultant for the defense and followed that aspect of the case closely.

Many people disagree and think the verdict was due to jury nullification by Black jurors in retaliation for the “not guilty” verdicts returned by White jurors in the Rodney King beating case. For example, Colin Black expressed that opinion here a few days ago. For the record, I do not believe the Rodney King verdict had anything to do with the OJ verdict.

And so it goes.

Let’s take a look at the core legal principles in all criminal trials.

Despite what lawyers and judges may say, a trial is only incidentally about a search for the truth. I use the word “incidentally,” because the real purpose of a trial is to determine whether the prosecution can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime(s) charged. The jury determines the answer to that question in a jury trial and the judge determines it in a bench trial, if a defendant knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waives his right to a jury trial and agrees to permit the judge to decide the case.

The “truth” may or may not be revealed and become known during a trial. For example, even when a defendant has confessed to a crime, there will always be a theoretical possibility, however unlikely, that he may be innocent and have falsely confessed to the crime. My next article, for example, will be about false confessions.

In addition, even if DNA evidence supports a confession, appearing to remove all doubt regarding guilt, there will always be a theoretical possibility that the DNA evidence was fabricated or planted due to forensic fraud.

The important points to remember are that a trial is a quest to determine whether the prosecution has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt and theoretical possibilities, in the absence of any evidence to support them, remain theoretical and cannot constitute a reasonable doubt.

We begin all criminal trials with the presumption that the defendant is innocent and must be found “not guilty,” unless the the jury decides the prosecution has overcome the presumption of innocence by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The defendant has no burden to produce any evidence or do anything. He can remain silent throughout the trial and elect to testify or not testify. If he does not testify, his silence cannot be held against him and the judge will instruct the jury to ignore the defendant’s “insoluble silence” as there may be any number of reasons for it that are unrelated to the issue of guilt or innocence.

The burden to overcome the presumption of innocence is placed on the prosecution and it must prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Should it fail to do so, the jury must return a verdict of “not guilty.”

Reasonable doubt is defined in the jury instructions as “a doubt for which a reason exists” and it “may arise from the evidence or lack of evidence.” That is, it must be an evidence-based doubt. Either certain evidence supports the doubt or the absence of certain evidence of guilt supports the doubt. Sometimes, it’s a combination of both that supports reasonable doubt. A reasonable doubt cannot be based on suspicion, speculation or hunches.

“A reasonable doubt is such a doubt as would exist in the mind of a reasonable person after fully and fairly considering the evidence or lack of evidence.”

Either side is entitled to claim the benefit of the evidence regardless of which side introduced it.

Put another way, during deliberations, the jury is supposed to review all of the evidence that was introduced at trial and decide whether (a) there is a doubt about the defendant’s guilt and whether (b) that doubt is supported by a reason arising from the evidence or lack of evidence. In other words, an evidence-based reason. If the answer is “yes,” then the jury must acquit. If not, then it must convict.

Unless it decides not to and that is where jury nullification comes in.

There also is a possibility that a jury verdict might be based on confusion or a mistake. However, the jury instructions were specifically designed and written to reduce the possibility of a mistake or confusion as close to zero as humanly possible. All courts use standardized sets of pattern instructions and my quoted material comes from the pattern instructions in Washington State where I practiced law for many years. I know them by heart.

I looked at the pattern instructions in Florida several months ago and they are similar, if not identical. This is not surprising as all of the state and federal courts are on the same page when it comes to defining the presumption of innocence, burden of proof and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

No one should be surprised that judges believe jury nullification is a terrible threat to due process of law and the orderly administration of justice. They have done everything they possibly can to structure trial procedure, the introduction of evidence and the jury’s deliberative process to simplify, guide and focus jury attention on the “important” stuff.

Despite their best intentions and efforts, however, justice cannot be captured in a set of definitions, procedures and step-by-step instructions.

The whole concept of Justice is greater than the sum of its individual parts, as defined by laws, court rules and jury instructions.

The ancient Egyptians understood this principle and that is why they elevated Justice to the status of a god.

They called her Ma’at and paid homage to her in all aspects of their lives and dealings with each other.

She is the basis for what we call the Golden Rule.

When you think about it, Ma’at or the desire for justice is why we have juries decide cases, and if juries are to manifest Ma’at in their decisions, they must have the power to exercise jury nullification.

Unfortunately, jury nullification, like everything in this physical dimension of space-time, including our ideas and ourselves, comes with a shadow. That shadow manifests as something evil when an all White jury wrongfully convicts an innocent Black defendant, despite reasonable doubt. The prosecution benefits in that situation.

But a jury that acquits a sick defendant undergoing chemotherapy who is technically guilty of possessing and using marijuana for medical purposes manifests Ma’at and strikes a blow for justice. I see nothing wrong with that.

As I explained in an earlier article in this series on jury nullification, I am focusing attention on the defense effort to use racism and jury nullification to deny Justice for Trayvon. I am ringing a bell and issuing a warning to the prosecution and all who seek Justice for Trayvon in hopes of reducing the probability of that outcome to zero.

So let it be written.

So let it be done.

I hope this article clears up any remaining confusion about these vitally important principles.


Previous articles in this series:

Nitty Gritty: Three Questions for Jury to Answer in Trayvon Martin Murder Case

Jury Nullification: The Best Kept Secret in American Law

How to Nullify Jury Nullification and Obtain Justice for Trayvon Martin

How to Nullify Jury Nullification and Obtain Justice for Trayvon Martin

January 2, 2013

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

I was inspired by Xena to write this article today to warn the prosecution and all of my readers to take the defense seriously in the Travon Martin murder case

She said,

“In GZ’s case, O’Mara would need 6 jurors and the required number of alternates, ALL who believe in GZ’s innocence before they are sworn in as jurors. Nullification in GZ’s case would require all six jurors to find him innocent. That— ain’t — gonna— happen.”

I hope you are right, Xena, but I am not certain that you are.

I prefer to evaluate the case in terms of potential strategies and probable outcomes. I am compulsive by nature and always evaluated my cases in this fashion. There is no downside to being prepared.

I think the defense is focused on the only argument that it believes has any probability of success and that is jury nullification.

Every effort and every public statement appears to be focused on poisoning the pool of prospective jurors in Seminole County by appealing to racism demonizing Trayvon Martin as a crazed Black Gangsta who deserved to die and portraying the prosecution and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as outsiders who overruled the local authorities and bypassed a local grand jury to prosecute the defendant for political purposes to appease Black “racist rage.” That is, the defense is attempting to maximize the probability of success through the use of sleazy character assassination and grotesque propaganda in a highly focused way that I have only seen in used in elections.

Keep in mind that the defense does not necessarily need to have convinced all six jurors to vote “not guilty” before the trial starts. They just need to convince one or two strong personalities who will serve as their voices during deliberations refusing to vote guilty and pushing the same buttons that O’Mara, West and Robert Jr., are pushing until they finally achieve consensus.

Whether this strategy will succeed in the face of an extremely unlikable defendant and a veritable mountain of evidence of his guilt is unknown and difficult for me to estimate at this time.

I can only do what is within my power to do and that is to illuminate and publicize what I see hoping that my efforts to warn will inspire others to act in ways that will reduce the probability that the defense strategy will succeed.

I believe this case will be won or lost in jury selection.

I firmly believe that an unbiased and unprejudiced jury of reasonable people will reject this defendant’s claim off self-defense and convict him of murder in the second degree. I do not believe there is a reasonable probability that such a jury will acquit this defendant.

However, I believe there is a statistically significant probability that a biased and prejudiced jury will acquit this defendant despite overwhelming evidence of guilt.

If for no other reason than to avoid overconfidence, the prosecution needs to focus on jury selection now to develop a strategy to identify and excuse potential pro-defendant stealth jurors willing to lie in order to get on the jury and wreak havoc.

The prosecution should consider retaining one or more jury consultants familiar with the demographics of Seminole County and polling residents regarding their knowledge and opinions of the case. Careful consideration should be given to developing a comprehensive juror questionnaire that exposes not only bias or prejudice but efforts to conceal bias or prejudice. The prosecution should request additional peremptory challenges since they may be the only means it has to strike dishonest stealth jurors. The use of individual attorney-conducted voir dire is critically important as is cultivating the art of asking open-ended questions, carefully listening to the answers and following-up with insightful and respectful questions to discover and reveal possible biases or prejudices.

I recommend against sequestering the jury because sequestration is equivalent to being imprisoned and that will cause juror hostility to the court to no good end.

This team of prosecutors is on unfamiliar ground and should not assume that they will be regarded with the usual degree of respect to which they have become accustomed on their home turf. They must do everything possible to avoid being seen as an outsider seeking to convict and imprison a decent local citizen to serve the governor’s political agenda.

The defendant’s supporters do not fight fair. They have no respect for the truth and will use any tactic to discredit and intimidate. I know what I am talking about because they have been impersonating me, including using my photograph as an avatar at the Huffington Post and other sites, spreading false and malicious information to discredit me and my efforts to seek justice for Trayvon.

What they have done and continue to do to me pales into insignificance when compared to what they have done to demonize Trayvon and intimidate Dee Dee, Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin, the Martin family, Benjamin Crump, Natalie Jackson and others who support justice for Trayvon.

The prosecution is not only on unfamiliar ground in Seminole County, it’s on unfamiliar ground in a propaganda war.

The sooner it acknowledges the potential danger and develops a comprehensive strategy to deal with it the more likely it will obtain a just result and convict this defendant.

Jury Nullification: The Best Kept Secret in American Law

January 1, 2013

Tuesday, January 1, 2013.

Happy New Year and best wishes to all of you for a healthy new year.

I write today about jury nullification, the right that no one dare mention in a court of law.

Jury nullification is a term used to describe the inherent power of a jury to reach a verdict contrary to the evidence and the law.

I call it an “inherent” power because the jury has the power to decide the outcome of a case and its decision is not subject to challenge, so long as there is no evidence of jury tampering or improper influence. Even the deliberations themselves, including who said what to whom and whether they were right or wrong, inhere in the verdict and are not subject to scrutiny or challenge. Therefore, nothing prevents a jury from disregarding the evidence and the law in order to reach a verdict that produces what the jury decides to be a fair, proper and just result.

In addition, you will not find the term in any set of jury instructions. Also, counsel and the judge will never mention it when the jury is present in the courtroom. Merely mentioning jury nullification in the presence of the jury is sufficient for the court to order a mistral and hold the offender in contempt of court.

One might call jury nullification the best kept secret in American law.

Why is that so?

The answer is that justice, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Let us use the defendant’s legal predicament as an example. He is charged with murder in the second degree for killing Trayvon Martin.

Defense counsel has been trying the case in the Court of Public Opinion demonizing Trayvon Martin and constantly repeating the defendant’s self-serving narrative while ignoring all of his inconsistent and conflicting statements as well as the physical evidence and the forensics that conclusively refute his narrative. He has been pitching his case to potential jurors who are racists and gun nuts like the people who hang out at the conservative tree house and other websites aggressively defaming and attacking anyone who dares to challenge the defendant’s false narrative and his attorney’s propaganda.

Imagine the result that a jury composed of the defendant’s like-minded supporters would reach if they were informed that they could invoke the power of jury nullification, ignore the evidence and the jury instructions, and find the defendant “Not Guilty.”

Is this not what defense counsel hopes to accomplish with his aggressive pretrial propaganda campaign disguised as motions for discovery to clarify or to reconsider previous court rulings?

If this were to happen, jury nullification would be used to vindicate racism.

On the other hand, there are cases where I would enthusiastically support jury nullification. I am thinking of Private Bradley Manning, who is accused of espionage and faces a potential life sentence for allegedly blowing the whistle on improper and unlawful actions by the United States military in Iraq and other countries. He is a true American hero, as far as I am concerned, if he did what he is accused of doing and I absolutely oppose the military prosecution. He is a political prisoner and not a criminal in my book.

These two examples demonstrate the weakness and the power of jury nullification to affect outcomes.

Do you believe jurors should be advised that they have the power to nullify alleged wrongdoing and that lawyers should be permitted to argue for and against jury nullification?

DISCLOSURE: I have used jury nullification to obtain acquittals in several cases. One has to be very careful to pull it off, but it can be done and I did so without drawing an objection by opposing counsel or a warning from the judge. I support keeping the law the way it is.

Zimmerman: To Sequester or Not to Sequester, That is the Question

September 21, 2012

I oppose juror sequestration and recommend that it be abolished. I believe many judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree. I write to support my recommendation and to solicit your views regarding this important matter.

I practiced law in Seattle for 30 years. I do not recall any trial during that time where jurors were sequestered. I am not saying it did not happen, but if it did, I do not recall it.

Judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and jurors hate the idea. So do the people who have to police the jurors by screening all information that comes to them and redacting anything about the case.

The jurors might as well be locked up in jail and they never would have agreed to serve as jurors, if they knew what it was going to be like.

I have discussed this issue with other criminal defense lawyers from other parts of the country, whom I got to know through my involvement in the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and we all agreed that sequestration is a bad idea. We knew the jurors would hate it and we feared they would take out their frustrations on our clients.

As I devoted more of my time and efforts during my career to learning forensics and representing people potentially facing the death penalty, I found myself in more complex and lengthy trials.

For example, one death penalty trial went on for 9 months. The shortest trial lasted 3 months. The strain on everyone involved in the process, including the jurors, was incalculable.

If they had been denied access to the comforts of home and hearth during that time, I would not have been surprised if some of them had cracked and assaulted their keepers or just fled the madness and disappeared.

I knew one thing for certain. I would never have tolerated being sequestered, if I were a juror. For that reason alone, I would never ask for a jury to be sequestered and would oppose a prosecution request to sequester.

At some point, we have to get smart, acknowledge human nature, and stop trying to hold back the sea. Jurors are going to watch TV, read newspapers, listen to the radio, surf the internet and discuss the case with their domestic partners and close friends.

Rather than ban those activities and set them up to commit perjury by insisting they swear not to do those things, we should educate and warn them regarding the potential dangers of outside influences and remind them daily of their solemn duty and responsibility to base their decision on the evidence introduced in court.

Jurors should be encouraged to note and inform the judge and the lawyers when outside information about the case reaches them. Segregating that information into a category labeled with the word “Ignore,” reinforced by a jury instruction ,probably is the best way to limit, if not eliminate, the problem posed by outside information influencing the jury to reach an improper verdict.

Treating jurors with honesty and respect, instead of suspicion and distrust, as though they were naughty children requiring continuous adult supervision, is the mature, honorable and decent way to go.

Disregarding inadmissible evidence is a task judges are required to perform on a regular basis. Some take that obligation seriously and some do not. Some are better at it than others.

Some judges are so corrupt that they will invent evidence to support conclusions they intend to reach, despite the evidence.

The jury system was created to address this last category of judges by preventing the Crown from depriving people of their property, liberty and lives without just cause.

Since the jury system was created, judges and lawyers have attempted to control what jurors do and how they do it. The clearest example that comes to mind is the effort to outlaw jury nullification.

Jury nullification occurs when a jury decides to disregard the law as set forth in the instructions and return a verdict of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty,” according to what it decides to be the “right” decision, regardless of the law.

Here are two examples of jury nullification that illustrate opposite extremes.

In the first case, a jury acquits a young man of failing to register for the draft during an unpopular war despite evidence that he refused to register because he was opposed to the war.

In the second case, an all White jury convicts a Black defendant of the rape-murder of a White woman and sentences him to death, despite DNA evidence that exculpates him.

The fear of jury nullification is so strong that any lawyer who mentions it is likely to be summarily held in contempt, ordered to jail and a mistrial granted.

A reasonable possibility exists that a jury will be sequestered in the Zimmerman case, assuming Judge Nelson denies Zimmerman’s motion for immunity from civil and criminal liability and the case proceeds to a jury trial. Due to Florida’s Sunshine Law, we are familiar with most of the evidence that will be admitted at the trial, as well as evidence that will be excluded.

Assume that you have been selected as a juror in the Zimmerman case.

My questions:

(1) Having been exposed to inadmissible evidence, such as W9’s accusation that Zimmerman sexually abused her multiple times during a ten-year period that began when she was 6-years-old and he was 8-years-old, do you believe you could ignore her accusation and base your individual verdict only on the evidence admitted in court?

(2) Assuming your answer is “Yes,” why do you think you could ignore it?

Now let us expand the scope of the two questions to include all of the evidence and information you know and your opinion of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. Have your answers changed?

(3) Do you believe it is possible for you to presume Zimmerman innocent, given what you know?


(4) Knowing what you know, would you find him “Not Guilty,” if the prosecution fails to meet its burden of proof because it did not introduce evidence that you recall?

Aye, there’s the rub.

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