Yesterday, jury selection began for the Casey Anthony murder trial. Every minute of the voir dire is being broadcast nationwide on the unbelievably sleazy TruTV cable network.
Yesterday, between commercials for “Hard Core Pawn” and shysters who handle mesothelioma tort suits, TruTV exposed unnamed (but, no doubt, identifiable by their voices ) prospective jurors to public scrutiny—most of whom wished to be excused from duty due to hardships, some of which were very great hardships, indeed.
The only good that can come from such commercial exploitation of a murder trial jury is that—possibly—a potential juror somewhere in this country will learn from the spectacle that jury duty is hazardous. Better yet, maybe some legislators will learn why jury selection should not be televised.
The circuit court trial judge, Belvin Perry, Jr., did his best to prevent jury selection from being televised, but over the weekend an appeals court overturned his decision to make the location of the selection process secret.
It looks as if Florida state law prohibits any and all restrictions on the press, which suggests to this former juror that the Florida State Supreme Court or the U. S. Supreme Court needs to step in and end the ghastly practice of broadcasting jury selection.
Where in the Bill of Rights does it say that freedom of the press includes the right to expose the private affairs of non-public figures? It isn’t as if a prospective juror applies for a position on a high-profile jury like the Casey Anthony jury.
What possible benefit can be derived from the public knowing that some employers do not pay employees for time serving on jury duty? Or that a person who has been selected at random does not feel she speaks English well? Or that another person has a family that could not drive to Orlando because the family automobile is over twenty years old? Or that another person who can’t claim hardship and might be able to serve on a jury has diabetes?
A few of the questions asked of the prospective jurors surprised me. Most significantly, the judge asked some jurors what opinion they had formed in the case—not just whether they had formed an opinion. Several people were forced to say they had already decided that the defendant is guilty. Each of them seemed highly distressed by having to admit this, as if it was a character flaw—when it is really evidence of strength of character. I really think it’s very unfair to force an honest citizen to do this in public.
The Voir Dire Experience
Voir dire is the process of questioning prospective jurors. Its purpose is to reveal possible biases that might incline a juror to vote for or against one of the sides, regardless of the courtroom presentations. But what really happens in voir dire is that the attorneys try to get rid of potential jurors based on a stereotypical classification system, called “Scientific Jury Selection,” in other words superstition.
I have been involved in voir dire twice. Neither was a pleasant experience—even though neither was broadcast or observed by the press. I can’t imagine having to endure it on the air.
I was chosen to serve on a criminal court jury in the Cook County Criminal Courthouse. Voir dire was conducted in a courtroom behind bulletproof glass. That alone was enough to terrify every prospective juror.
Inexplicably, the heat was turned up, even though it was summer. A court reporter sat at a computer in front of the jury box, where jurors could read what was being typed on the screen. When the attorneys, defendant, and judge retreated into chambers, we could read what they were saying about us behind closed doors, because the reporter followed them with a portable keyboard.
The judge conducted the voir dire; the lawyers asked no questions. Frankly, I don’t think they cared: the prosecutors thought it was an open-and-shut case; the public defender was planning to argue that his client was guilty of two charges, regardless of the fact that he had pled not guilty.
Every prospective juror was nervous. Most of us responded to questions with a bit of a quiver in our voices. Some could barely speak—they literally choked up.
The defendant glared at us. A translator reiterated every one of our words in loud Spanish (not whispered in the defendant’s ear), so that it was impossible to think. Oddly, all Hispanic prospective jurors were excused. Because they didn’t ask any of the rest of us if we spoke any Spanish, not even “un poco,” at least one of the selected jurors turned out to be fluent in Spanish and had been able to understand the translator. Once we were in the jury room, she said she didn’t know how she would be able to concentrate during the trial, because she couldn’t help but listen to what the translator was saying.
The jury summons in Illinois includes an intrusive questionnaire, which prospective jurors are required to fill out before they arrive at court. These questions are yes/no. If you answer in the affirmative, then you must fill in a free-form explanation. The questions primarily relate to previous experience with the justice system—including the experiences of one’s extended family. When I was asked about my prior court experience, including the experiences of my family members as noted on the questionnaire, I had to reveal a very embarrassing situation involving a member of my family. It wasn’t until I had revealed this information to the whole court that the judge said we could ask to be interviewed privately in her chambers. Another prospective juror revealed he had been sexually assaulted as a teen.
Some Small Rays of Light on the Process
Yesterday, most of the prospective jurors demonstrated that they did not want to serve on this jury. That speaks volumes about the good character of these people. No one should want to serve on the Casey Anthony jury. Justice cannot be served in this trial. Not only can nothing bring back the little girl who died, but there is no justification for the taxpayers of Florida to spend millions in order to execute a young woman who clearly has a personality disorder. Casey Anthony is over-charged. If she had been charged with neglect, abuse, and second-degree murder two years ago, she would be serving a long prison sentence right now.
And if the press had not sensationalized the Anthony family tragedy, most of us would never have heard her name—and we wouldn’t be any the worse for it.
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