On Law

Jewish World Review Dec. 1, 2004/ 18 Kislev, 5765

Judges, lawyers say jurors need warning about crime shows

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | (KRT) You know a juror has seen too many episodes of "CSI" when he asks why prosecutors didn't use DNA samples in a computer hacker's trial.

There was a time when judges considered it sufficient to tell jurors to avoid watching news accounts about the trials they were involved in or discussing the case with anyone. But that was before "Forensic Files" and "Law & Order" took over prime-time television.

Nowadays, judges specifically instruct jurors not to watch the popular cops-and-robbers shows.

That has become necessary, they say, because the programs - which cross cutting-edge forensic science with overly dramatic fiction - could give jurors a distorted sense of what a real trial is like. There's a genuine threat to justice, they say, if someone in the jury box doesn't realize that Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy of "Law & Order" isn't a mirror image of the everyday prosecutor.

"The goal is to make sure that the trial is as fair as possible," said Superior Court Judge Patrick Roma, who sits in Hackensack, N.J.

Roma presided over the recent trial of Wilbert Brown, a Leonia, N.J., man accused of shooting his ex-girlfriend to death. At the end of each day during the two-week trial, he sent the jurors home with a reminder not to watch crime shows.

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"Given the number of law-related programs on television, one does not know whether there is a fact pattern that parallels the facts of the case being tried," the judge said. "There should not be any outside influence to intrude upon their thinking."

Roma has plenty of support: Trial lawyers, prosecutors and even jurors agree that judges need to emphasize the distinction between court and courtroom drama.

"Every judge should order jurors not to watch any (crime-related) show or read any papers," said Diana Michaels of East Rutherford, N.J., one of the jurors who convicted Brown of murder.

The shows would "most certainly" influence a juror if a case on TV is somewhat similar to the case on trial, she said.

Watching or not watching a crime show isn't a factor when jurors are selected, said Superior Court Judge Donald Venezia. Once they are seated, however, jurors are instructed not watch anything that could influence their understanding of the case they are about to decide.

"I wouldn't be specific as to what shows, but I would tell the jurors that if that if you see a show that appears to be something similar to the real case, don't watch it because it may prevent you from being impartial," Venezia said.

That may mean not watching the Scott Peterson trial, for instance, if you are a juror in the trial of a man accused of killing his wife or girlfriend, Venezia said.

Passaic County, N.J., Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor John Cosmi agreed.

"I would always stand in front of a jury during a trial and tell them, `Don't come in here with a TV mentality,' " said Cosmi, who has tried cases for more than 30 years and grew up watching "Perry Mason." "Many times jurors come in with ideas that they learned on TV, and they are completely erroneous."

Obviously influenced by TV, some jurors have asked why detectives couldn't find fingerprints on a piece of paper, which is virtually impossible, he said. Others have asked why DNA evidence wasn't introduced in connection with a crime that involved no bodily fluids.

Of course, producers of such shows see things differently.

"I am a little shocked that judges are instructing jurors not to watch shows," said Elizabeth Devine, supervising producer and a former writer of "CSI Miami," which boasts a weekly audience of 30 million. "I think that is making a lot out of something that is for entertainment."

That said, Devine urged viewers not to try to compare TV cases with real ones.

"In 44 minutes we try to introduce a case, follow a case and solve a case for the entertainment of an audience," she said. "Real cases are much different, and the time frame is much longer."

Fred Graham, chief anchor and managing editor of Court TV, said he doesn't believe a juror's interest in crime-related shows would slant his or her decision-making in a trial.

"We have been hearing from lawyers that jurors might want them to stand up to the standards of forensic evidence that they see in the shows," he said. "But I think (jurors) can set aside what they see on TV from a real trial."

Assistant Bergen County, N.J., Prosecutor James Santulli offered a different take. Although crime shows could create unrealistic expectations, they could also educate jurors and make life easier for lawyers.

Santulli was the prosecutor in the 1993 trial of Morey Marcus of East Rutherford, N.J., who was sentenced to two life terms after being convicted of sexually assaulting and stabbing a 32-year-old Garfield, N.J., woman to death.

After recovering bloodstained jeans from Marcus' home, prosecutors decided to introduce DNA evidence to prove his guilt - one of the first times this was done in New Jersey. It took 28 days of pretrial hearings before a judge ruled in favor of admitting the evidence.

Once the trial began, prosecutors had to bring four experts to the witness stand to explain to jurors that DNA was an acceptable form of evidence.

"You don't have to do that now," Santulli said. "Through the culture of TV and books and magazines, DNA has come to be accepted not just by scientists but also by jurors who appreciate the new type of evidence."

Graham said TV-educated jurors - with words of caution from a judge - could actually help the system, because police and prosecutors would be required to present higher-quality evidence to meet jurors' expectations.

"It would be adequate to tell the jurors, `Watch these shows and enjoy them, but don't mix them up with a real trial,'" he said. "I think jurors can do that."

Julie Peters of Tenafly, N.J., served on a jury in an attempted murder trial in May. None of the jurors mentioned TV justice shows during their deliberations, she said.

"I don't know how realistic these shows are," she said. "You would hope people would have the common sense."

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© 2004, The Record Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services