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TV versus Reality

Why do televised cases always end with a jury verdict that doesn't make sense? As a trial lawyer there is no simple answer, other than to say that juries decide cases based on reasons that attorneys (and the general public) will never understand.

After a jury verdict, good or bad, I ask the jurors what influenced their decision. Often, it involves issues that may seem insignificant when preparing for trial. For example, female jurors pick up on subtle body language of those who testify. They pick up on my own body language which is the most concerning. For this reason, I have read (and reread) books on body language, hoping that I will have a better understanding of what my body may be saying to the jury. I believe I have a better understanding of body language, but I will never be an expert on the complexities of what someone will perceive when paying more attention to my hands rather than the words coming out of my mouth. To become an expert I will have to enter politics! Politicians work with coaches, read books and practice their speeches in front of a mirror until their speech and body language are flawless. Regardless of their practice, experts still believe that someone trained to read body language will catch eve the best politician during their speech.

Beyond body language, jurors make decision based on the evidence they are presented, which may not be the whole picture. Attorneys decide what evidence they are going to present to the jury, but a judge can issue a ruling that excludes such evidence. The judge may exclude evidence because it is more prejudicial than helpful on deciding the issues in the case. A judge may also exclude evidence that is repetitive or confusing. Most often, judges correctly follow the law on what a jury should or should not see. However, it ultimately comes down to their opinion on what should be presented. If they chose incorrectly, then an appeal may become necessary to right a potentially harmful evidentiary decision.

Between body language and the presentation of selective evidence places the jury in a vacuum which closes off the outside world. Juries can be sequestered, kept in hotels, and ordered not to watch any television coverage of the trial, if it exists. Will this work is anybody's guess. I find it hard to believe that juries do not watch television coverage on high profile trials and I do think that it has an impact on the outcome.

If jurors are watching the trial as it appears in court as well as how it is presented by the media, then justice will be severely affected. This, if anything, may explain why televised trials have such unusual results. The same trial, if the cameras were never turned on and the pundits never spoke, would have a different outcome. I know this because I see the same facts presented in courtrooms everyday with completely different outcomes. These non-televised trials have the same outcome again and again, yet when the cameras turn on, things begin to go awry.

I respect our jury system and believe that it is the best system in the world. It's not perfect but it's the best option. A jury of our peers eliminates results based on fame and fortune. However, I do wish that the media would offer no opinions nor publicize what they believe is important until after a verdict is rendered. For now and many years to come I will continue to try cases and hope for a just verdict. I will watch my body language and prepare for the “what if’s” of when key evidence is excluded. Equally important, I will watch for when the media comes calling and do my utmost to shelter my case from their drastic affect.

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