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.

Comments: (3)

  • It may not have been the prosecution's turn for a ...
    It may not have been the prosecution's turn for a peremptory challenge, as I understand it. That's how the lone-wolf juror slipped thru, I imagine. Otherwise, the State would have had to object for a 'cause' which may not have been apparent at the time of voir dire.
    While this man's observations were no doubt astute, I wonder why he just didn't keep his thoughts to himself, stay on the jury and perform his 'civic duty'? Inquiring Minds want answers to these perplexing questions. Yossarian lives at GA 23!
    Maybe he had better things to do, like watch Court TV at home!?! The remaining jurors are allowed to 'hug' one another, but are they allowed to bug one another? Inquiring Minds demand answers! (Bugger didn't rhyme.)
    Posted on September 16, 2010 at 1:43 am by William Doriss
  • Oh geez Norm. Not this shit again.
    Oh geez Norm. Not this shit again.
    Posted on September 16, 2010 at 2:01 pm by Gideon
  • Ohhh crap. Have things really come to this? People...
    Ohhh crap. Have things really come to this? People are addicted to watching tv show dramas- they feel so personally involved with the characters as well as the 'exciting' and 'emotionally touching' drama that they actually go to the extent of gossiping about it with their friends as if it were a reality in their life. Its as if their life is so dull and not at all mentally stimulating so they fuse themselves to these fake, made up dramas to help them feel like their personal life is actually as exciting as the lives of the characters on the show. But now- apparently people are not able to get the same 'stimulating high' effect anymore like they used. Their feigning for a stronger fix. So what do they do?? They manifest these emotionally wrenching dramas into their personal reality. They are not just watching the drama anymore, they actually get to LIVE it! How exciting!! ...Wow...Not only is justice mocked here, but so is any tiny bit of optimism I may have had left for the possibility that there could still be noble minds found in the general population of our society. In this concept, I'm so glad I'm a minority. Fuck the 'cool' crowd.
    Posted on September 16, 2010 at 7:28 pm by Katie

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