Gibson Law - July 2021

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Jury Pools and Fair Trials


Are ‘Tainted’ Jury Pools a Historic Problem? How Do You Get a Fair Trial by Your Peers?

B ack in April, the largest legal case of the year wrapped up with a police officer receiving multiple convictions after his actions resulted in the death of a civilian. Heavily publicized from beginning to end, the trial highlighted the difficulties the internet era exacerbates with information, bias, and trial in the court of public opinion. Attorneys had trouble finding appropriate jurors in a pool tainted by media coverage and preconceived notions. But was this really a new dilemma or merely the newest spin on a very old tale? The American justice system is founded on the concept of offering people fair trials by their peers; this usually means the jury will consist of a reasonably diverse assortment of people representative of the community. Of course, that could mean different things,

Elizabeth Kelly of St. John’s University points out that the same men who drafted the Constitution also ran the largest newspapers at the time. Media bias has always been part of the mix. It became even more pronounced in the live-coverage TV era, as the murder trial of O.J. Simpson exemplified. Just as people had strong opinions going in, they had strong opinions coming out, and not much has changed in the 25 years since — including people’s opinions on the guilt or innocence of the party on trial. But one thing can change: the beliefs of a juror, even one who comes in with preconceived notions. It can be easy to think we know everything the jury does, but following a case in the headlines as we go about our week isn’t the same thing as being in court all day, day after day, going through the nitty-gritty details of a crime with professional, experienced attorneys. The general public just doesn’t have all the information despite what the media provides. Prejudiced or not, if jurors come in wanting to serve justice, then they can be up to the task if they are willing to focus on the facts and evidence at hand. That’s ultimately what Breheny and Kelly found back in 1995 — and despite the advent of the internet, there’s no reason to think jurors can’t do the same today.

and attorneys are given leeway in selecting jurors for that reason.

The media has often run antithetical to this principle, so we’ve never really had an American jury formed outside of media influence. After all, a 1995 examination of jury bias by sociologists Brian Breheny and


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