Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Rafael Martinez, Jr. Trial - Day 2, Jury Selection

Exclusive T&T coverage on the case can be found HERE.

Martinez trial, Day 1.....

UPDATE spelling, clarity
January 27, 2015
I made it from downtown to the Van Nuys Courthouse in plenty of time before Day 2 of the Martinez trial started. When I arrived on the 8th floor of the Van Nuys West Courthouse, the hallway was full of jurors.

I've been told many times by attorneys and colleagues that voir dire is the most important part of a trial. This is where the trial is often won or lost, depending on your point of view.

The court doesn't always give counsel as much time as they want to question a jury. I'm remembering in the Stephanie Lazarus case, Judge Perry was very strict with counsel on how much time he would allow.  Defense attorney Mark Overland ran out of time in questioning some jurors. There are differences with every judge on how voir dire will be handled. That's often because the case might require pre-screening of jurors for hardship, or have the jurors fill out a questionnaire if the case has had a lot of media attention.

10:45 AM
Inside Dept. V, the courtroom is just as hot as it was yesterday. It's a problem with the whole building. Counsel have taken off their jackets and the friendly bailiff is already fanning herself.

In this case, Judge Speer has a preset laminated questionnaire that's kept on the juror's seat, for each juror to answer. Each juror gives their juror number, the general area of the city they live in, their marital status, what they do for a living, if they have a spouse what the spouse does for a living, and if they have children. If they have grown children, the court may ask what their occupations are too.  On the back of the form are a series of questions that may involve more personal information, such as, if they have relatives in law enforcement, if they've ever been a victim of a crime or charged with a crime themselves, etc. Jurors are offered the opportunity to answer these more personal questions at side bar, so that this personal information may remain private, and not shared with the other jurors in the room. Judge Speer usually ends her questioning by asking if the prospective juror thinks they could be fair to both sides in this case.

Once the court is finished questioning jurors, it's handed over to counsel. Judge Speer gives the attorneys 30 minutes each, once a new set of jurors have been questioned by the court. It's a true art to pick a jury. There is no hard or fast rule. What each side is looking for is bias that might prejudice their side.

Both the prosecution and defense in the Phil Spector trials used jury consultants to help them pick a jury. The defense team in the Kelly Soo Park trial used a jury consultant.

Yesterday, during Judge Speer's initial questioning, one juror was telling the court about a relative member who had a bit of trouble with the law, sort of a "black sheep" of the family. The relative had been arrested for money laundering, been shot, stabbed twice, and shot at a few times. The court asked if the relative was ever convicted. The juror responded no, that they had gotten off on a competency. The courtroom laughs. Even the court commented, something to the effect of, sounds like an interesting guy. When jurors bring up experiences involving relatives or friends that were accused of a crime, Judge Speer usually asks juror if they think the individual was treated fairly by the police or court.

On the first day of voir dire, when defense attorney Tom Burns steps up to question the jurors, he starts of by asking them about a complicated piece of law regarding evidence weight. I believe he's referring to the 1101b testimony that will come into this trial. That evidence can only be used in a particular way and the law is very clear on how the jury is allowed to use this evidence. He also asks jurors if they are part of groups or organizations that promote stricter gun laws, victim's rights, or harsher penalties for crimes.

Burns continues with questions about whether or not they have any science background, are familiar with DNA and if they watch any of the crime dramas. After asking about the crime shows, he asks if they believe that these shows are accurate, and that DNA solves a case in 30 minutes. Mr. Burns also brings up to the jury the criminal justice system in another country, Scotland, where there are three options: guilty, not guilty, not proven. Burns asks the potential jurors, "How do you feel about letting someone off if they’re probably guilty but there’s reasonable doubt?"

Yesterday, when DDA Daniel Akemon first stepped up to the podium, he tells them, "You've heard the charges, double murder; pretty heavy charges." He asks each and every juror how they feel about being on the jury. He's looking for jurors that can sit on a double murder trial and take in all the evidence. For DDA Akemon, the integrity of these proceedings is paramount. He talks about how it's very important not to talk to anyone about the case. No texting, no Facebook, no social media of any kind, and no Googling. He tells them he is just as curious as everyone else, but they must refrain from this activity.

The reason is, it's unfair to Mr. Martinez and the prosecution. All the evidence that comes into this case must come from that witness stand. "The reason why I emphasize this is it just pops up in these trials. ... It just pops up. ... Not to make you paranoid, but the walls have ears. Something may be said in the hallways and it's unfair to both sides," DDA Akemon stresses.

DDA Akemon also talks about how that in the past, they've had jurors that have gone out to murder scenes on their own. They need to refrain from doing that.

He tells them that this is a very solemn event for jurors to follow and to give the court their full attention. Sometimes what happens is, the jury selection will really start to speed up here. Once the lawyers are done with their questions and they see that things are moving along, and, before you know it, you hear the attorneys accept the panel. And her honor will swear in the panel. And you're about to rise again and take another oath. And it's often that we get to that moment in time, that jurors start to raise their hand, they have an issue. "I ask this question to try to head this off at this point," Akemon adds.

"All of you prospective jurors, could be a juror in this case," DDA Akemon told the group. "But in any case, now is the time, literally, it's 3:20 in the afternoon. You could wind up on this panel. [Is there] anything that would stop you from finding this man guilty of murder if the case was proven beyond a reasonable doubt?"

It's interesting the answers that the jurors give to being asked how they feel about being a juror. Many are nervous but also say they find the process interesting.

3:30 PM
At the end of day two, four potential jurors were excused in the last round of questioning. It's still quite hot in the courtroom. People are fanning themselves with anything they might have.

Because it's so hot, Judge Speer asks the room, "It's 3:30. ... [Do you] want to recess for the day or keep going? It's a firm answer from the gallery, "Keep going!"

Four more jurors are randomly drawn and questioned by the court.

This is interrupted when late in the day, a juror who's been on the panel for quite some time wants to add more personal information on the record about a family member interaction with the LAPD. Under further questioning, the juror assures the court that they can be impartial and the incident will not affect their service.

3:40 PM
Questioning continues by counsel and three jurors are excused for peremptory challenges.

We end the day with three empty seats in the jury box. Court will resume at 10:30 AM tomorrow.

DDA Akemon asks for a discussion with the court off the record. The defendant is brought back into custody.  From where I'm sitting, it sounds like counsel and the court are planning the timing of the steps moving forward after a jury is sworn in. That would be opening statements and scheduling the first witnesses for the people.

Day 3 of Jury Selection....