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Trial by jury - how fast is too fast?

Posted Monday, August 18, 2008, at 9:59 AM

After our story on the recent conviction of Lawrence E. Stewart on a drug charge, two important questions were raised on the blog attached to the story. The first question concerned the use of confidential informants; the second question concerned the speed at which the jury came to unanimous agreement on the verdict.

Here's the story about Stewart's conviction: http://www.marshallnews.com/story/145269...

And here's the story about confidential informants: http://www.marshallnews.com/story/145332...

And, more on the subject, this time concerning the speed of the verdict:

The verdict in the case of Lawrence E. Stewart Wednesday, Aug. 13, came in very fast, in less than 20 minutes.

The trial itself, not including jury selection, began at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. Testimony ended just before 7 p.m. After a dinner recess, jurors heard closing arguments from Saline County Prosecutor Donald G. Stouffer and defense attorney Rebecca M. Hains before going to the jury room at 8:20 p.m.

By 8:40 p.m., the jurors had returned and been individually polled on their agreement with the verdict. They were then dismissed after a brief discussion with Judge Dennis A. Rolf.

To some, the verdict seemed to have come not only quickly, but perhaps too quickly.

Dr. Joseph Rice, president of the Jury Research Institute in Alamo, Calif., said Friday, Aug. 15, that although bringing in a verdict in under 20 minutes in a criminal case is fairly quick, it's not unheard of, particularly in a one-day trial.

Rice said his research indicates that most juries take a "straw poll" of their members almost immediately after selecting the foreman.

"If all the members of the jury are already in agreement on the verdict, there is then little reason to continue deliberations," he said.

Rice added that what the jury decides can be a measure of how well each side presented its arguments.

"They may have believed the prosecutor's presentation was good, or that the defense attorney's presentation was not, or some combination of each," he said.

Rice, a clinical psychologist and attorney, is frequently called upon by attorneys involved in a broad range of difficult cases.

In a 2002 California case involving the kidnapping and murder of a young girl, Rice was quoted in an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune by reporter Kirstin Green on the possibility of jury influences:

"Rice says jurors tend to exercise good judgment and focus on evidence presented in the courtroom when they enter deliberations.

"Jurors are very good about separating the outside world," he said. "For the most part, they are able to put aside those issues and focus on the evidence."

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er - I didn't see any people, so it wasn't the clothing. It was the style of the building, the manner in which they were arranged, and the fact that they were identical (not just alike, identical) that was indicative that they were public housing. I am aware of the type of housing you refer to (condos, townhouse, etc) - typically, they are similar, but NOT identical. Because of those reasons, I asked my mother & step-father if it was public housing or "projects" and they confirmed that it was public housing. In answer to your question, I believe the laws regarding public housing are different in every state, but certainly I wouldn't be surprised to see a college student living in public housing, children or not. Public housing is based on income. A full-time college student, working a full-time job might qualify based on income.

The question is not whether or not YOU can assume that he knew that it was public housing. The question is whether or not the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew it was public housing. Clearly, the defense did not provide evidence of reasonable doubt. Merely stating that there were no signs indicating that did not, in the minds of the jury, create that reasonable doubt.

As to the person who walked in and declared "He's guilty," I certainly don't think he was out of line, and I don't believe that him merely stating that (in whatever manner it was done) would have convinced a juror who had reasonable doubt to change his/her mind that quickly. I believe the jury had made up their mind when they walked into the jury room and it just took that long to deal with the administrative details.

-- Posted by koeller77 on Fri, Aug 22, 2008, at 12:57 PM

koeller77- I know that they are and you assumed that are, but how is it obvious? Because they all look alike? In STL many neighborhoods have townhomes and flats that look alike. Is it because of the style of clothes people there where? The kinds of cars? Were you told that it was public housing? I once knew a college student that lived in the same complex. Would/should a college student with no children be living in public housing? By law, I wouldn't think you could assume that everyone knows this without postings. A school has postings and cross walks, which, obviously makes it a school. Apparently, it's irrelevant because the jury agreed that everyone in town knows it's public housing regardless. I know it sounds simple, but generally the law accomodates idiots who are not force fed certain boundaries. "School Zone/DARE Zone/and even public housing Zones". I've seen all 3 of these signs in other towns (the first 2 in Marshall).

-- Posted by er on Thu, Aug 21, 2008, at 3:42 PM

er: just a note on whether or not he should have known if it was public housing. I live in Wisconsin (my mother lives in Marshall, so I like to keep up on the news down by you!) and the very first time I visited Marshall, I was immediately struck by the fact that there WAS public housing. It was very clear to me what was public housing and what wasn't. My town in Wisconsin is about Marshall's size and doesn't have any, so I thought it odd that a town the size of Marshall would have it. Nevertheless, I never questioned that it was anything but what it was - very obviously public housing.

-- Posted by koeller77 on Thu, Aug 21, 2008, at 1:54 PM

er: Here is some information on grounds for appeal in Missouri from lawyers.com, although these are rather broad and not the only grounds:

"If you're found guilty, you may appeal the decision after the court officially pronounces the sentence, which means you can ask a higher court to review a decision made in a completed trial or proceeding. In Missouri, you have 10 days after the court officially pronounces your sentence and enters your sentence and judgment to appeal.

"The Missouri Attorney General's Office handles all the felony appeals in the state. If the appeal is from a misdemeanor conviction, the prosecuting attorney will represent the state. The party who loses before the Court of Appeals may petition the Missouri Supreme Court for review. The Missouri Supreme Court has discretion whether to accept a case for review.

"There are numerous reasons for an appeal from a guilty verdict in a criminal case, including what's called "legal error." Legal error may include:

1)Allowing inadmissible evidence during the criminal process, including evidence that was obtained in violation of your constitutional rights.

2)Lack of sufficient evidence to support a verdict of guilty.

3)Mistakes in the judge's instructions to the jury regarding your case.

You may also appeal due to misconduct on behalf of the jurors, or if there is newly discovered evidence to exonerate you."

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Wed, Aug 20, 2008, at 6:22 PM

er: One clarification should be made: the jury had not yet been sent to the jury room for deliberation when they had their dinner. A recess was declared for dinner, which was served to the jurors in the jury room, which is proper procedure, to keep them apart from anyone else in the courthouse. The jury was returned to the courtroom for final arguments after dinner, and then went to the jury room for deliberations later when closing arguments were finished. I'm not being picky - just establishing the correct timeline for their actual deliberations.

In a trial, the jurors are the "triers of fact." They decide which pieces of evidence to consider and rely on in making their judgement. As Dr. Rice, the jury research expert I spoke to said, it sounds as if the jurors had all evidently come to the same conclusionon the defendant's guilt. The eventual foreman's comment might have had the effect of pushing someone in the direction of guilty, but to say so with certainty isn't possible.

I'm not up to speed on appeals in Missouri, but I will try to get additional information on that topic. Jury misconduct is one reason for an appeal, that much I do know, but can't imagine how that could be proved conclusively.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Wed, Aug 20, 2008, at 6:08 PM

You're correct, the foreman was not the foreman when he gave his opinion. He was selected after saying "he's guilty" to the others. I understand that this would be acceptable as everyone has the right to their opinion. It just seems that this swaying probably explains the swift decision. If I'm someone selected on the jury that really doesn't want to be bothered with a lengthy one, I'm choosing him as my foreman. The sheriff, I believe, brought their pizza to them for dinner- before the end. I got the information about the home's resident incorrect(niece instead of daughter) but my question remains the same. Could there have been reasonable doubt that he didn't know this was public housing, not being a resident? I understand the jury believed he did, but won't that open this up for appeals if they believe this with no evidence? You can't convict someone on assumptions, can you? Also, why would an informant put themself at risk for only a misdemeanor charge? Since she has no previous drug charges, I would assume the marijuana and paraphernalia charge would be just that- a misdemeanor. It just seems fishy that you would put yourself out like that for a fine. Since she's done this before and doesn't have a record anywhere, how reliable is her information? I've said it before, I'm glad he's been caught. I just don't want to leave him any room for an appeal in the future. Then, all of our money and time for this case is down the drain.

-- Posted by er on Wed, Aug 20, 2008, at 5:20 PM

er: I was present for the entire trial, except the jury selection. I see from my notes that the CI was stopped for speeding and driving while revoked, and in a search of her vehicle, officers discovered marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Those were the offenses on the table when she offered cooperation that resulted in Stewart's trial. You can consult Missouri Case.net for additional information on her other offenses, which is what I did before writing this story.

As far as your information on the foreman, that person would not have been the foreman upon entering the jury room, since the foreman is not chosen until after they reach the room. Whatever he said, he's entitled to his view, as is each member of the jury, and please remember that they are the ones who select the foreman, not the judge, the prosecutor or the sheriff.

The jury decides for itself what is fact and what is not, from among the facts presented by both sides. If they had doubts, it's my personal belief (not a legal opinion, which I do not have a right to express in any sense) they would have deliberated longer.

If members of the jury have questions, they are allowed to ask the judge for instructions. I did not see the prosecutor enter the jury room during deliberations, if he did, so I cannot comment on that. I do know that Mr. Stouffer was not in the courtroom when the jury signaled they'd come to a verdict, so I doubt he was in the room before they reached their decision. The sheriff sits outside the door during deliberations; I did not see him enter, either, except to accompany the jury into the room when they were sent there by the judge. There are some instructions jurors need to know about selecting a foreman and about how they are to proceed, so it's possible the sheriff is responsible for giving them that information before they begin deliberating. Judge Rolf did speak to the jury after the verdict was delivered; it is customary for the judge to thank jurors for their service before they are dismissed.

As to whether or not Stewart knew he was in public housing, the jury believed he did. The specific law under which he was charged provides a one thousand foot perimeter, in any case. My notes indicate the prosecutor said the apartment in which Stewart apparently resided belonged to his niece, not his daughter.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Wed, Aug 20, 2008, at 4:15 PM

Please read my last response to the second link given above. It is pertaining to the confidential informant and was posted before I read this blog. I found the whole, short trial strange. I knew a couple of people on the jury and quietly questioned some of the conclussions when they talked to me about them. The foreman walked instantly in the room and declared, 'he's guilty'. Is it OK for the sheriff, prosecutor, and judge to talk to the jury during deliberation? Those were both done. Being from Marshall, I have always known where the public housing was located. Why? I don't know. I've never seen any postings and assume it's just been word of mouth. Why was this overlooked for a man that was living on his daughter's floor of the complex? He wasn't given the bill for the apartment- nothing was in his name. He may not have known unless told by someone, just like I knew- that's reasonable doubt. My other question is raised by the accredibility of the informant. She has done this more than once and has never had a drug conviction. Wouldn't this be reasonable doubt?

-- Posted by er on Wed, Aug 20, 2008, at 2:33 PM

Oklahoma...Oooh, those are my favorites!!! They call in every once in a while and go off and they just sound so ignorant that while they scare me...they also make me laugh!!!

-- Posted by koeller77 on Wed, Aug 20, 2008, at 7:50 AM

Koeller77 I agree right back at you. The level of ignorance within the populace is frustrating. The sub set among the ignorant that believe NPR is a left wing propaganda machine are even more frustrating.

-- Posted by Oklahoma Reader on Wed, Aug 20, 2008, at 12:37 AM

Oklahoma - I agree with you! I think that trial by jury is a good thing, and I wouldn't want to change it, although there are instances where I would take my chances with the judge over a jury because of prejudices (for example, any case including any allegations of a sexual nature).

I guess one of my concerns is always (and more frequently these days) the lack of knowledge in many of our juries. I don't think the public in general is as well-informed as they used to and that scares me! For example, my closest coworkers don't even know what NPR is, much less that they could listen to it. It always worries me when I see an exceptionally long jury deliberation because I wonder if the reason is true reasonable doubt or simple ignorance of what constitues reasonable doubt (especially give today's CSI society!)

-- Posted by koeller77 on Tue, Aug 19, 2008, at 8:35 AM

These are just a few afterthoughts to my prior posting.

Firstly, I highly recommend an old silver screen movie, The Last Angry Man starring Paul Muni. It is a powerful tribute to our judicial system with many excellent secondary themes. It was also redone more recently, but I prefer the original version.

Secondly, I am well aware of the potential for, and the actual abuse of nullification by juries. Far too often it has been utilized to blatantly miscarry justice. The acquittal by all white juries of white men for murdering people of color in the south has occurred far too often. However I see that as not so much a failure of the nullification concept, but rather as a failure of the concept that one is entitled to a jury of one's peers. "Peers" should not be narrowly defined. It also indicates to some degree a failure of voire dire (the jury selection process).

Finally, please bear in mind that I am an old populist, and that it is my nature to most of the time trust my fate to the common man rather than the powerful upper class. An exception might be a lynch mob if they were after me. Even then they would probably at least indirectly, be stirred up by the powerful, so I could trust neither, and would just have to place my hope in, and reliance upon the law and those (hopefully) good folks whose mission it is to uphold it.

Good night.

-- Posted by Oklahoma Reader on Tue, Aug 19, 2008, at 1:03 AM

Koeller77 I disagree with your comment "If it goes long, it means that some jury members are having to argue the case to other jurors-something that I believe should be the defense/prosecuting attorney's job!"

It is the prosecutor's job to present the state's case to the jury. It is the defense's job to present the defendant's case to the jury. As our system of jurisprudence guarantees a defendant the right to be judged by a jury of his peers, removing the jury's duty to discuss the case, and to reason together as to the proper verdict would fetter the jury's ability to consider the weight of specific evidence, or the lack thereof. Such a hindrance would strike at the heart of the jury system.

An interesting side note that speaks to the power that our founding fathers intentionally granted to juries is the concept of nullification by the jury. It is the circumstance that ordinarily occurs when there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant has broken the law but the jury considers the law unjust, and votes for acquittal for that reason. The first Chief Justice of the US John Jay wrote: "It is presumed, that juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumed that courts are the best judges of law. But still both objects are within your power of decisionů you [juries] have a right to take it upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy". State Of Georgia v. Brailsford, 3 U.S. 1,4 (1794),[15]

It is my belief that the very essence of a democracy is that as much power as possible must rest with the common people, e.g. juries. Judges and prosecutors are too close to authority and privilege in our society to assure that their stance is in the best interest of the common man.

Koeller 77 you make an interesting point, and one that provokes thought. I am not saying that you are wrong. I merely wanted to present another point of view.

-- Posted by Oklahoma Reader on Tue, Aug 19, 2008, at 12:11 AM

I actually think that a quick return is more indicative of a "true" jury verdict than a lengthy one. As Dr. Rice said, a quick verdict usually indicates that all the parties are in agreement from the get-go. If it goes long, it means that some jury members are having to argue the case to other jurors - something that I believe should be the defense/prosecuting attorney's job!

-- Posted by koeller77 on Mon, Aug 18, 2008, at 12:31 PM

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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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