As I write this post, two celebrities are on trial and one famous person has been identified by the media as the “star witness” in a murder trial.
Former U.S. Senator John Edwards is on trial in federal court in North Carolina, charged with using almost $1 million in campaign funds to hide an affair with the mother of his child.
In federal court in the District of Columbia, former major league pitcher Roger Clemens is on trial, charged with lying to Congress about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
In Chicago, Jennifer Hudson has already testified against her estranged brother-in-law who is charged with the murders of Hudson’s mother, brother, and 7-year-old nephew.
In high-profile cases such as these, a number of issues may arise that writers and commentators should understand fully. For the most part, these issues center on pretrial publicity.
Change of venue
In high-profile cases, defense attorneys often move for a change of venue. They ask the court to move the trial to another location, usually a place other then where the crime occurred. The fear is that potential jurors who live in an area that has been saturated with media coverage about a case will be unable to set aside whatever they have seen or heard about it. A change of venue is not automatic. Even as to the Watergate defendants, the courts held that although the pretrial publicity was massive, there was no need to grant the defense requests to move the trial from Washington, D.C.
On the other hand, the federal trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was moved from Oklahoma to Denver, Colorado. In the murder trial of Casey Anthony, the judge denied a defense request to move the case out of Orlando, where the body of Anthony’s two-year-old daughter was found, but brought in jurors from another part of Florida to hear the case.
Defendants have a constitutional right to a fair trial. That includes having jurors who can decide a case based solely on the evidence produced at trial, not on anything they have heard or read about the case, and not on any feelings they may have about the personalities involved in the case.
In high profile cases especially, prosecutors and defense attorneys often use jury questionnaires and/or rely on the jury selection process, known as voir dire, to select impartial jurors.
Once a full slate of potential jurors has been identified, the parties may submit proposed questions to the judge for inclusion in a questionnaire that is provided to those potential jurors. In addition to routine questions such as whether the person can sit on a case that may last several weeks, the questionnaire may seek to identify the biases of persons who are in the jury pool. The voir dire, that is, the process of questioning potential jurors prior to trial, has the same purpose.
If a case has garnered lots of publicity, the court may cast a wide net for potential jurors who can decide the case fairly. In the case of John Edwards, 185 potential jurors were initially summoned. Ninety potential jurors were called in Roger Clemens‘s case.
There are similar issues when the celebrity is a potential witness and especially, as with Jennifer Hudson, the celebrity witness is also a surviving family member of murder victims. Defense attorneys are concerned that jurors will be swayed by the witness’s star power, especially in a case where sympathy will be a strong factor anyway.
You might think that judges issue instructions to jurors only at the end of a trial before deliberations begin. But in fact, the judge may instruct the jury at any time before and during a trial. And judges use jury instructions to help ensure the selection of unbiased jurors.
The judge presiding in John Edwards‘s trial cautioned potential jurors not to tell anyone, even family members, that they had been summoned in the case. She also told them to disregard anything they thought they knew from watching legal dramas on TV because such shows may mischaracterize the law or how things work in the courtroom.
“You can watch Law & Order, Judge Judy, John Grisham; put it out of your mind,” she told them. “I will tell you what the law is.”
Jury selection for Roger Clemens was protracted even as to simple questions about whether or not jurors had a reason to be excused. Some jurors told the judge in the case that they could not serve on the jury for religious reasons. One juror told the judge that justice was in God’s hands. “Who’s supposed to do it while we’re here on Earth?” the judge asked.
In selecting a jury for William Balfour, charged with murdering three members of Jennifer Hudson‘s family, jurors were advised early on to avoid publicity in the case. They were even cautioned not to watch Hudson’s recent appearance on American Idol. One potential juror was dismissed after he admitted that he was a “big fan” of Hudson’s and had read a lot about the case.
The questioning of jurors in Balfour’s case was also complicated by the number of potential jurors whose lives had been touched by violence. At least two people summoned for jury duty had family members who were murdered. Another was dismissed because a child, Hudson’s nephew, had been murdered and, she said, she just couldn’t get past that.
These are just some of the issues that surround celebrity trials. Do you have any questions? Would you be interested in hearing more? I could discuss when and why juries are sequestered, how jury selection experts are used, and other issues that you might want to understand when crafting your novel about a high profile crime. Was this helpful to you? Let me know!