Lah-Dee-Dah and the Rule of Law
If you have heard enough about the show-trial taking place in New Haven regarding the Cheshire home invasion, you might be tempted to skip this column. But I ask you to hang in for a paragraph or two. I’d like to talk about the administration of justice in Connecticut courtrooms. This trial, unnecessary as it is given the defendants’ willingness to plead guilty, teaches much.
Lesson number one: Our manner of picking jurors is an expensive joke. Day two of the Hayes trial proved it. Thomas Ullmann, lead counsel for Mr. Hayes, is regarded by most as the state’s most painstaking practitioner of individual sequestered voir dire. In a routine case involving less eye-popping allegations than the Cheshire case presents, he is known to take about an hour questioning each witness. Add additional time for the bizarre practice known as death-qualifying a jury, and I suspect Tommy’s voir dire is even longer. Purists defend the practice of questioning each juror outside the presence of all others as the best means of assuring a fair and impartial jury.
Well, the system failed. On day two of evidence, the day after the parties gave opening statements, a juror begged off the panel. He didn’t think much of the state’s case. It was poorly prepared, disjointed, hard to follow. Judge Blue, concerned lest the man’s obvious discomfort and displeasure with the bungling efforts of the state to convict a man whose lawyer had already told jurors was guilty of murder, tossed the panelist over the state’s objection. Expect to hear more about that on appeal: It’s not enough to seat of jurors prepared to kill? We must now make sure that jurors think well of the state?
Lah-dee-dah, Diane Keaton once famously said. Why do I see those very sentiments flow so easily from the lips of trial court Judge John C. Blue?
Let’s face it folks: Voir dire ailed in this instance. I did not see the juror, but I cannot escape the conclusion that he was a lingering nut job. If Ullmann saw it, he banked on this fellow for a mistrial. But how did the state miss this?
The real answer is that neither side most likely realized the man was a smoldering volcano ready to erupt. Talking to him for upwards of an hour during voir dire didn’t detect it.
I will say again what I have said here often: Individual sequestered voir dire is a waste of time. The quality of juries selected in state court is not better than the quality selected in federal court by the group method. Our state courts have long delays because it I almost always the case that it takes longer to pick a jury that to try the case. Lawmakers need to address that.
And what of Twitter in the courts? I was sitting in a courtroom in Stamford not long ago where I was told I could not read the display on my cell phone while court was in session. Yet in New Haven, where the show is the thing, there are so many people banging away on keyboards that at one point the jury reported problems hearing soft-spoken witnesses.
Why the clacking? Reporters are sending instant messages via Twitter. They stare at the surviving victim and report such gems as: “Dr. Petit places his had to his head” as witnesses testify. Why such tolerance of this carnival-like behavior in this case. Do special rules apply when the victims are privileged?
The New Haven trial is troubling. The crime was, to be sure, horrific. The proof is overwhelming. Yet the legal proceedings have the feel of a psychodrama. We have a separate courtroom for the victims’ family to use to gather. The media lavishes attention on every move of the survivor. Even the judge lost his bearings one day, informing jurors they could not talk about the case, but they could hug one another.
This maudlin show trial was unnecessary. The defendants offered to plead. But the state wants to kill them. We don’t permit men to submit to death. That would be obscene. So to make ourselves feel better we engage in a show trial and then make special rules to handle it.
Justice is mocked, but people feel good. Kumbaya, anyone?
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.