Jury Sequestration

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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”).

2 comments on “Jury Sequestration

  1. Mr. Welty Sir, I agree that there is a huge problem with potential and setting ‘jurists’ (Citizens) empanelled to hear cases. The sensationalism, hyperbole, and pre-conclusions or speculations put forth by the media starts LONG before any trial sic, making it most difficult to find a panel of ‘Citizens’ that have not been tainted prior to them being called to serve as ‘jurists’.

    Then comes the unfortunate fact that most average Citizens know very little to nothing about the Law or the Due Process of our laws makes it easy for both the defense and prosecution to manipulate them via passions and prejudice. This combined with the media hype in my own opinion creates a very dangerous situation for us all.

    The first amendment secures the Citizens natural right[s] to the freedom of assembly, speech, press, and petition to name a few. These so called news reporting ‘agencies’ I feel are commonly confused with natural born persons.

    As agencies they do NOT in my opinion have ‘natural rights’ (“Civil right[s]” Ref: People v. Washington (1869) 36 C 658, 6622, In re Gogabashvele’s Estate, 195 Cal. App.2d 503, 16 Cal.Retr. 77, 91.) secured by our laws. As agencies they do have limited privileges otherwise known as “civil right[s]” (Ref: . Nickell v Rosenfield (1927) 82 CA 369, 375, 255 P 760) granted to them by our system of law.

    Sic, when an agency claims they have a right secured by the first amendment to freedom of speech, and press what they have is a qualified privilege and not a ‘natural right’. Personally I feel they are abusing their privileges we as ‘Citizens’ granted them via our legislatures, and are causing problems in our system of Courts.

  2. Years ago, before I became an attorney, I served on a partially sequiestered jury in Wake County. The Defendant was charged with drug trafficing. The city police had hired a criminal justice student from the mountains to be a paid informant and buy drugs. The Raleigh Times had made a big issue out of the hiring and run several stories about it in previous trials.

    The trial lasted three days. On the first morning, the judge made some favorable comment about the practice of hiring paid informants to catch criminals. Too late, he thought better of it.

    So,. in addition to ordering us not to read or watch news, he ordered the sheriff to escort us to our cars. The jurors had parked at various places so several sheriffs were required to drive us to our vehicles.

    In my case, the deputy always drove into the lot, watched me get into my car, and then followed me as I drove out of the lot and headed for home.

    The state also bussed us to North Hills each day and paid for lunch in the cafeteria there. We ate with two deputies at two tables side by side. I enjoyed the free lunch.

    My civically conscious wife kept the paper from me and wouldn’t allow TV until after the news was over. I, being a responsible citizen, didn’t try to defeat her efforts.

    Druing deliberations, we took about 15 minutes to find the Defendant guilty on the first vote. We all sat around for another 30 minutes so it wouldn’t look like we had made a snap decision.

    The hired witness seemed very credible and the city detectives had watched him closely during the investigation. The defence offered very little evidence to contract the state.

    I don’t think the partial sequestering did much good or had much effect, as I didn’t see anyone who might have tried to talk to me at lunch or on the way home. I don’t know if the deputy’s presence had any inhibiting effect on anyone or not.

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