Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Jurors Behaving Badly?

The prosecution is making good headway in its case against Michael Jackson. While it seems the defense is keeping up, the judge's ruling to allow prosecutors to admit witnesses related to previous allegations against Jackson has been damaging. Several witnesses including one alleged victim have testified that Jackson made inappropriate contact with boys. What we don't know is how this is all playing to the jury. So, a blurb caught my eye last week about possible juror misconduct. Melville supposedly looked into it, but the reports are still floating around that several journalists witnessed jurors outside the court laughing and mocking a prosecution witness who testified that Jackson molested him when he was a boy.

And so, from the Santa Maria Times (the local paper in trial territory) and columnist Steve Corbett, we have this first hand account of what happened:
The Associated Press reported that Robert Cole, a foreign editor for the British cable television network Sky News, said he had overheard jurors laughing and maybe even mocking a witness who had tearfully claimed that Jackson molested him when he was a child.

"Cole said another reporter also heard the conversation. That reporter declined to comment Thursday," AP reported.

I'm that reporter.

And I declined comment because I was busy trying to find out what was going on when the AP reporter called. I also wanted to write my version of events in this column.

Cole and I were walking past the outdoor area where jurors take their breaks. The spot is hidden from view by a fence and a high green tarp.

As we passed, we heard what I thought might be loud sobbing that quickly merged with the sound of loud laughter.

Cole and I looked at each other and kept walking.

Drudge quoted a juror as saying, "Oh boo-hoo, Michael Jackson tickled me," which was supposedly followed by laughter from other jurors.

Neither of us heard anyone speak. Neither of us knew what had promoted the outburst. Maybe some juror had stubbed a toe.

When we made it back to the Sky News area - from where I provide daily commentary for Sky on the Jackson trial - Cole privately shared a theory.

He wondered if jurors had been mocking the witness, a 24-year-old Santa Maria Valley man who had offered graphic and emotional testimony about being tickled before being sexually molested by Jackson on three occasions.

I hadn't thought of that. But now that Cole mentioned it, I had to wonder. "Is that really what you think?" I asked.

"Yes," Cole said.

Cole, a former newspaper reporter who has worked for the BBC and covered the war in Iraq for Sky News, is a smart, seasoned and savvy journalist. His concern was legitimate.

But neither of us heard words. Neither of us had the context we needed to draw a clear conclusion.

I'm still trying to figure out how the sounds that Cole and I heard took on a life of their own and caused people to wonder whether jurors had trivialized the public trust and disrespected their duty as citizens.

Cole's words to the AP were dead-on accurate.

"It sounded like they had just heard this kid crying and they were kind of laughing at what had happened, mimicking him. I didn't hear any names or anything. I don't know if they were talking about him or not."

Neither do I.

But Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville should find out.

While he's at it, he might want to ask jurors if they know anything about jurors laughing at the same young witness' mother after she testified about the relationship between Jackson and her young son when she worked as Jackson's personal housekeeper.

A reporter told me that she heard jurors laughing in the same break area after the woman's testimony. One female juror laughingly asked in a mocking tone if anyone had "seen her face," the reporter said.

Like Cole, the reporter wondered whether the remark related to witness testimony. Maybe it did.

Maybe it didn't.

Melville needs to find out.

Jurors are prohibited from talking about the case with anybody - including each other. That's why they must put the brakes on even the slightest hint of impropriety, which could harm their credibility.

I agree. Melville needs to look into it. But I disagree with the reporters assertion above that it's OK if they were just commenting on the witness by mocking him (or her). Not OK. It's not OK that jurors are discussing their open opinions or impressions of a witness, positive or negative, with anyone. And certainly not in earshot of reporters. This could the second major appeal point so far in the trial. (The defense will most certainly cite Melville's decision to admit prior allegations in their appeal if they lose.) But this time for the prosecution. If Melville did nothing to stop it, we could have a small problem. Otherwise, it's good to hear a first hand account.


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