Jewish World Review April 5, 2004 / 14 Nissan 5764

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Can 'Runaway Jury' be real? So-called "stealth jurors" could be sabotaging the justice system


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | In the movie "Runaway Jury," John Cusack's character made it his mission to be placed on a jury to manipulate the verdict. Now, it seems that the plotline is not pure Hollywood fantasy.

Recently, there have been allegations that this is actually happening in real courtrooms. They've been nicknamed "stealth jurors," jurors who blatantly lie to get on cases so they can serve their own form of justice.

In the Scott Peterson case, defense attorney Mark Geragos contended that one of the prospective jurors tried to do just that. During questioning, Geragos confronted the woman saying he has information that the retired municipal worker told a bus full of senior citizens on their way to Reno that Scott was "guilty as hell" and he was "going to get what's due to him." She previously said that she had no preconceived notions about the case.

Martha Stewart's attorneys are now asking for a new trial after they say a juror lied about his criminal history on his jury questionnaire, claiming that the juror had his own ax to grind with Martha Stewart.

Today, the Tyco case ended in a mistrial. Juror No. 4, a woman who had nearly brought the case to a mistrial last week, had allegedly received a threatening or coercive letter within the past 24 hours. Earlier last week, the same juror was believed to have made an 'OK' sign to the defendants. The media has since scrutinized her and have wondered whether she might have had an agenda of her own.

With a slew of high-profile trials like Kobe Bryant's and Michael Jackson's -and others to come - are these stealth jurors really that big a problem?

Phillip Anthony, a jury consultant with the prominent firm DecisionQuest says that this is a real issue in our court system. According to their own study of 1,000 people surveyed, 25 percent said they can envision a situation where they would want to serve on a jury. About 14 percent have said that they are willing to hide information about themselves to get on a jury.

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DecisionQuest also surveyed 163 lawyers: 60 percent of them believed that there are more stealth jurors, and 66 percent say that this phenomenon has increased over the past 5 years. (DecisionQuest specializes in jury research, trial consulting and jury selection.)

"The concept of a stealth juror is something we first saw occurring maybe three or four years ago," says Anthony. "It came right on the heels of the O.J. Simpson case, which in many ways was a watershed event for the legal system. It was also a watershed event in the context of jury behavior. It was really the first time in American history during which the jury-eligible American population could sit and watch an entire trial. The lightbulb went on for a lot of folks that if they ended up being selected as a juror, it could be an opportunity to engage in some form of social engineering."

Anthony recounts a recent case his firm handled. "A practicing lawyer was really eager to be on the jury. He really wanted to serve, and it didn't make a lot of sense since he was a busy fellow. It later turned out that he did have an ulterior motive. He was interested in becoming a consultant in this case, for the plaintiff."

Anthony adds however, that these so-called stealth jurors are motivated by more personal reasons. "Usually, they've experienced something personally that causes them to want to put forward their agenda."

'Washington Post' federal court reporter Jerry Markon says he's seen the same trend. "I wrote about a case a couple of years ago which was a tobacco trial and it was not one of the more high-profile tobacco trials. A man whose wife had died of cancer was suing the tobacco industry. One of the jurors lied and didn't reveal that he himself had cancer... and that his mother had died of cancer as well," he says.

"I was always under the belief or the perception that most people don't want to be on a jury," says Markon. "It's sort of inherently counterintuitive to want to be on a jury. But a quarter of the population does, and 14 percent might hide information? I think that says a lot."

So what can lawyers do to prevent "stealth jurors"?

"The reality is that all you can do as a trial lawyer is look for inconsistencies," says Anthony. Jury questionnaires, which some courts allow, can help. "If you have a questionnaire, look for inconsistencies. Look for signs of things that just don't make sense."

He added however, that "Runaway Jury" is not that realistic. "Most people do try to do a good job serving as jurors. They are trying to perform their civic jury duty."

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JWR contributor Dan Abrams anchors “The Abrams Report,” Monday through Friday from 9-10 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV. He also covers legal stories for “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw,” “Today” and “Dateline NBC.” To visit his website, click here. Comment by clicking here.

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