People take notice when celebrities become involved in the legal system.
Live updates are tweeted from court. People talk about high profile cases on
social networks and among friends and coworkers. Currently, people are talking about Reese Witherspoon’s recent arrest and about the Jackson family’s wrongful death case against AEG, but it seems like there is always a high profile case in the news. Defendants like Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony become big names as a result of cases that take a life of their own. Whether it is a celebrity’s involvement in the criminal justice system or a high-profile person’s involvement in a civil matter, these cases shape the public’s knowledge, awareness, and perceptions of our legal system in significant ways.
But what happens when you have to strike a jury in a case that involves a celebrity plaintiff or defendant? I recently spoke with an attorney who was involved in a trial with a very well-known entertainer. When the trial was over, most jurors “ran”over to the celebrity plaintiff to speak with him after finding in his favor. The attorney said that the jurors were “fawning” over the actor even though each and every juror had said the plaintiff’s celebrity status would not have an impact on
his/her view of the case. What happened?
In many ways, celebrity favoritism is no different than any other kind of bias. Some people may not admit to their bias, and some may even try to hide strong feelings or attitudes. More commonly, potential jurors may not understand just how strong their impression of a celebrity is or how their feelings about that person will influence the way they think about a case.
How do you approach jury selection under these circumstances? If the celebrity is opposite your side, how do you identify the people who say they won’t be influenced but who may “fawn” over the celebrity after the trial is over? If you are
representing the celebrity, how do you spot those who may have negative feelings about your client?
Following are 5 jury selection considerations for trials that involve a celebrity or high profile individual.
Mock trial or focus group participants may feel more distanced from a well- known person if they are watching videotaped deposition testimony. After all, they may be accustomed to seeing that person on TV. So, the impact of the celebrity may be muted in research. That celebrity may have a larger than life presence in the courtroom, particularly if the celebrity is present each and every day. This is especially the case if other well-known individuals are going to testify at trial.
Jurors are more apt to disclose attitudes and experiences on a questionnaire than during oral voir dire, particularly when feelings or experiences may indicate bias. Include several questions, including an open-ended question, when asking about their impressions and thoughts of the celebrity.
Multiple questions give us a better indication of how someone truly
feels, and you can follow up on inconsistencies during oral voir dire. When psychologists create personality tests and measures, they often try
to include at least four questions that tap into the same concept. Furthermore, questionnaires can be developed that give us an idea of how strongly people feel about issues. Allow participants to indicate their strength of opinion (e.g., strongly agree, somewhat agree, etc.) on multiple choice items.
Care must be used when monitoring social networks so it is done both
ethically and legally, but ethical use of social network monitoring during jury
selection is very important in these kinds of cases. For instance, look for public Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles. Which jurors have liked
or followed celebrities? Those individuals may show a higher degree of celebrity favoritism. Have any of the potential jurors posted about their courtroom experience on a social network site or blog?
Potential jurors often take the easiest way out with questioning. Many will talk as little as possible. If you give them a “default” by asking whether they will be fair and impartial, many will take that opportunity and say “yes.” You
won’t learn about their true attitudes or opinions. Ask questions that get people talking and that give them little opportunity to cut their answers short:
"How do you feel about…" or "Tell me more about…"
When someone admits a bias, thank them and ask, "Who else feels that way?" Open the discussion up to the entire panel in an attempt to loop everyone in when someone admits a bias. This can help promote disclosure among others in the venire.
Look for subtle nods when questions are answered by other jurors. Some people will subtly show that they agree or disagree by nodding even when they don’t speak up. Look at reading materials. While many people use e-readers or smart phones for their news, some will bring in books and magazines. When the venire comes and goes during breaks, look for anyone who is reading pop culture newspapers or magazines.