Will a Patriot Jury Convict One of Their Own? What Each Side is Looking For in Prospective Jurors
When Bill Belichick’s name appears on the witness list, you know you’re looking at the Super Bowl of criminal trials. Jury selection is almost complete in the murder trial of former NFL star and New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez. A final jury of 18 people, 12 regular jurors plus 6 alternates, will be selected from an initial pool of over 1100 potential jurors. Bristol County Superior Court Judge Susan E. Garsh has patiently sifted through the juror pool, using a comprehensive 51-part questionnaire and lengthy individual interviews, to try and seat an impartial jury. She has been so cautious in fact, given the high-profile nature of the case, that she has banned any Patriots or sports related gear from being worn inside the courthouse. If you have ever been to Massachusetts, especially when the Pats are a week away from playing in the Super Bowl, you know this is no small order.
According to prosecutors, Hernandez and two other men allegedly picked up 27-year-old Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player dating the sister of Hernandez’ fiancée, and drove him to a secluded area a mile from Hernandez’s home. Lloyd was then shot several times with a .45-caliber handgun. The two other men allegedly involved, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace Jr., have also been charged with murder and will be tried separately.
Prosecutors have said they expect the trial to last 8-10 weeks and anticipate calling about 45 witnesses. Patriots owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick are two of more than 300 names that were listed by prosecutors as possible witnesses for the trial.
Judge Garsh has narrowed the pool to 54 prospective jurors. She plans to question them as a group on Monday morning, with backup jurors on standby, court officials said Friday. Attorneys on both sides will have the opportunity to use up to 18 peremptory challenges apiece which allow them to remove jurors for any reason without cause. During this phase defense attorneys and prosecutors will try and empanel the most favorable jury for their side. It is usually very difficult to retain favorable jurors, so consultants or lawyers often use a deselection model by which they get rid of the prospective jurors that are the most unfavorable.
Hernandez was born in Bristol Connecticut, his father is of Puerto Rican decent and his mother is of Italian decent. He has a history of gun ownership and has many tattoos including several visible on his hands even when wearing a suit. The victim, Odin Lloyd, and the two alleged accomplices are African-American males. The trial is being held in Bristol County which is a relatively small county in Southern Massachusetts with a population of only about 550,000 people. By comparison the city of Boston itself has over 645,000 people. Hernandez’ former team the New England Patriots play in the city of Foxborough which is located in neighboring Norfolk County. Bristol County is 90% white and 4.4% black, according to recent census data.
Selecting a favorable jury is no easy task. It is not a part of the criminal trial process that receives much attention, but it can make all the difference in the verdict.
“A lot of times cases are won and lost during jury selection,” said renowned Jury Consultant Dr. Lara Giese Jesic of Advanced Trial Sciences in Los Angeles in an exclusive interview with Wild About Trial. Dr. Jesic is no stranger to high profile cases, her firm most recently assisted in jury selection for AEG in the 2014 civil case between the entertainment giant and the family of Michael Jackson. That trial lasted 5 months and jury selection took an astounding 3-4 weeks alone.
Dr. Jesic tells us that jury selection can be a very tricky proposition. There are elements of behavioral science, intuition, and analysis based on targeted questioning and observation. She says that consultants and attorneys aren’t just listening to what prospective jurors say, but how they say it. They are interested in the body language, facial expressions, behavior towards the attorneys and defendant, and any other indicators of how a person may lean.
According to Dr. Jesic there are likely certain juror profiles that each side will look for. These are not just a person’s demographics, but also their background, attitudes and experiences through which they will filter the evidence they hear.
“Defense attorneys in a case like this will look for people that have family members or have themselves been wrongfully accused of something; people that are more suspicious of law and order and government. Alternatively, Prosecutors will likely look for people that have been victims of crimes. They want jurors that have a more realistic viewpoint instead of an idealistic. These jurors are usually older, traditionally more conservative, employed in a management capacity, and have stable families. Younger people tend to be more emotional and idealistic and therefore more favorable to the defense.”
However, Dr. Jesic cautions that it can be dangerous to stick too strictly to a certain profile or ethnic group. “A person’s individual experiences and background are the most crucial indicators.”
She also warns that in high profile cases like Jackson vs. AEG or the Aaron Hernandez case here, attorneys must be very wary of “stealth jurors”. These are individuals that will see the trial as an opportunity to gain fame or notoriety, and may try and use the platform to secure a book deal or other post-trial benefit. According to Dr. Jesic these jurors are much less likely to be impartial since they are motivated by their own personal ambitions.
“It is hard to tell initially who is a stealth juror because they are lying to get on the jury. You need to get them talking and see if their narrative matches up with their background and experiences. You need to delve in, like a peeling an onion, to get to the core.”
When asked about how Hernandez’ celebrity status and how the local Patriots fandom comes into play, Dr. Jesic said that it can cut both ways. “You just need to get them talking so you can really get a feel for where they land on him. Some people may want see themselves as the saviors of the Patriots and will support Hernandez. Some are embarrassed by the behavior and are burning his jerseys.”
Needless to say, Monday’s final stage of jury selection will be significant for both sides. A final jury of 12 regular and 6 alternates is expected to be seated by the end of the day. Opening arguments are expected to begin Tuesday morning, however an impending blizzard may postpose the trial. Stay tuned for complete coverage at Wild About Trial.
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Ryan Kerns, Attorney and Legal Commentator for Wild About Trial
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