Juries on Trial

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The Michael Jackson jury, in its willingness to talk publicly after its verdict, offered a glimpse of a rarely acknowledged factor in our legal system: how the personal feelings of jurors affect their verdicts.

Juries are supposed to rule on the facts of the case, of course, but they are made up of human beings, and humans tend to distrust those they dislike. It happens at work, it happens in families and it certainly creeps into juries -- especially in a long trial. Lawyers on both sides of criminal cases go to some lengths to bond with jury members who show an inkling of sympathy.

Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., Jackson’s lead attorney, successfully used a private eye and psychology to put the mother of Jackson’s young accuser on trial. One juror spoke of her irritation when the mother, a problematic witness from the get-go, snapped her fingers. “I thought, ‘Don’t snap your fingers at me, lady,’ ” she said. Another juror, asked about the mother allowing her son to sleep in Jackson’s bed, responded: “What mother in her right mind would allow that to happen?” Mesereau previously worked his negative magic on Bonny Lee Bakley, the murdered wife of recently acquitted actor Robert Blake. By the time Mesereau left the case in a dispute with Blake, half the world seemed to have motive to murder Bakley. Again, he had some rich material to work with, but without Mesereau’s costly private investigators, who would ever have known all the grimy details?


The chosen villain in the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial was LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman. Simpson’s “Dream Team” started demolishing him long before a jury was chosen, in Vanity Fair magazine. In the article, unnamed defense attorneys called Fuhrman a racist “bad cop” who might have planted evidence to frame Simpson. After the trial, the daughter of one juror said Fuhrman was a major factor in the juror’s vote to acquit.

There’s a mirror image to this tactic: the defendant makeover. HealthSouth Chief Executive Richard M. Scrushy, accused of fraud at the Birmingham, Ala., company, went to work on his godly side soon after his 2003 indictment, switching to a mostly African American church, preaching at other churches and financing his own religious talk show. Preachers he befriended came to support him at his trial. The case, once thought a prosecution slam-dunk, is now in the hands of a racially mixed jury -- a deadlocked jury.