Jury Sequestration

These days, it seems as though there’s a trial of the century every week or two. Media coverage of court proceedings has never been more intense, even with Nancy Grace focused on Dancing with the Stars. The proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and other internet-connected devices has given jurors almost unlimited access to media reports, which often discuss matters that aren’t admissible. Even though judges in criminal cases routinely instruct jurors not to “read or listen to any news media coverage of this case or trial,” N.C.P.I. – Crim. 100.25, and not to discuss the case with anyone, id., it may be difficult for jurors in very high profile trials to avoid seeing, hearing, or reading about the case. Reporters, bloggers, paparazzi, and others may even seek out jurors during trial.

One solution to all this is to sequester the jury – to have the jurors stay together, typically at a hotel, for the duration of the trial, with court or security personnel guarding against unauthorized media access by the jurors, and against attempts by media to contact the jurors. North Carolina law clearly authorizes the practice: G.S. 15A-1236(b) provides that “[t]he judge in his discretion may direct that the jurors be sequestered.” See also G.S. 9-17 (providing for sequestration and requiring the state to pay expenses associated therewith); G.S. 15A-1214(j) (providing for sequestration of jurors during jury selection in a capital case). Partial sequestration, in which jurors are allowed to sleep at their own homes but are kept together and isolated during the trial day, is also authorized. Official Commentary to G.S. 15A-1236.

So, what do we know about jury sequestration?

It’s rare. I can’t recall a North Carolina jury that has been sequestered. Please post a comment or send me an email if you can. Based on the scarcity of appellate case law interpreting or applying G.S. 15A-1236(b), it seems that sequestration is not even requested very often. (Summaries of the relevant cases appear at the end of this post.) This Slate article asserts that sequestration “has fallen so far out of favor that judges rarely bother anymore,” because jurors don’t like it and tend to drop out of sequestered trials based on personal hardships. (However, the Slate piece also notes that “[t]here are a few states that have mandatory sequestration laws for the most serious criminal cases. Missouri, for example, requires that juries in death-penalty cases be sequestered.”) Weirdly, I found a recent study claiming that jurors were sequestered in 24% of all trials, and in 24% of high-profile trials. Paula L. Hannaford-Agor, When All Eyes Are Watching: Trial Characteristics and Practices in Notorious Trials, Judicature 197 (Jan.-Feb. 2008). Perhaps the study used an exceptionally broad definition of sequestration?

It’s expensive. The Orlando Sentinel notes that the jury in the Casey Anthony case was sequestered at an estimated cost of $360,000. It apparently cost nearly $3 million to sequester the O.J. Simpson jury. (Perhaps as a consequence, no Los Angeles County jury has been sequestered since, according to this report in connection with the case against Conrad Murray, the physician accused of involuntary manslaughter in connection with Michael Jackson’s death.)

It’s a headache. Sequestration is “rarely fun for jurors.” National Center for State Courts, Managing Notorious Trials 90 (2nd ed. 1998). They’re separated from their families, can’t watch TV or read uncensored newspapers, and must live in a hotel. The Simpson jury revolted over the restrictions associated with sequestration. Id. It isn’t enjoyable for court staff, either, who must monitor the jurors and keep them fed and entertained. The National Center for State Courts notes that issues that may arise include whether to allow conjugal visits by jurors’ spouses or significant others; how to address family emergencies; whether jurors should be allowed to jog outside, and if so, whether they must be escorted; who pays for snacks between meals; and many, many others. Id. As a result, the Center recommends that sequestration “should be used only in the most serious cases, and even then for the shortest possible period of time.”

For those interested in further reading, the North Carolina cases on point are:

  • State v. King, 326 N.C. 662 (1990) (the defendant filed a motion to “prohibit jury dispersal,” which effectively sought sequestration of the jury; the motion does not appear to have been heard and so may have been waived; if it was heard and denied, the denial was proper given the defendant’s failure to do more than speculate about the possibility of prejudicial media exposure)
  • State v. McLaughlin, 323 N.C. 68 (1988) (denial of the defendant’s motion to sequester was proper where “the jury was selected from citizens of another county[, t]he trial court quite frequently admonished the jury against discussing the case or gaining information about it from outside sources[, and the d]efendant presented no evidence that the jury did anything other than follow the trial court’s orders)
  • State v. Wilson, 322 N.C. 117 (1988) (the trial judge properly denied, in his discretion, a joint motion by the state and the defense to sequester the jury in a capital case; the motion was based on publicity near the time of trial regarding the execution of another defendant from the same county; it was “pure speculation to suggest whether such publicity would tend to favor the State or defendant,” and the defendant had made no showing that it would contaminate the jury)
  • State v. Stokes, 308 N.C. 634 (1983) (the defendant moved to sequester the jury; the trial court denied the motion; ruling affirmed on appeal without extensive discussion; the supreme court emphasized the trial court’s discretion and noted the defendant’s failure to show any “inflammatory, nonfactual reporting by the news media or that any seated juror was affected by pretrial publicity”).