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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Will Wonders Never Cease?

Jury Consulting in Criminal Cases

Traditionally, only a select few criminal defendants have employed jury consultants. Those who have typically fall into three distinct categories.

1) Really rich people and celebrities (who are usually really rich). These folks can afford to hire the most expensive lawyers and also pay for a variety of trial support services. If ever you needed proof that jury consulting is valuable, pay close attention to the fact that every criminal defendant who can pay for it does pay for it.

2) Accused murderers facing the death penalty. Because judges receognize that the stakes are very high in capital cases, as well as the particular stress on jury selection created by the death qualification process, public funds are most likely to be awarded for jury consulting services in these cases. The presumption is that the jury consultant will be used exclusively for jury selection (now that change of venue motions have become essentially hopeless).

3) White collar criminal defendants. OK. This is really a subset of the really rich people, but the issues are different enough to warrant its own category. Unlike the washed-up actor who strangles his girlfriend, the corporate accountant accused of cooking the books is facing a trial that feels somewhat more like a civil trial. The case revolves around money and common business practices. The victims are often also rich and generally no violence was involved. Defendants in these cases tend to employ jury consultants for a variety of services, from thematic development to witness prep to pretrial jury research to jury selection.

What about the Little Guy?

But what about the people who could use our help the most? What about the indigent criminal defendant with an overworked, underpaid and inexperienced and/or jaded public defender? Do these folks use jury consulting services? Well, the answer used to be a resounding "no" but the landscape is changing.

Despite the wording of the Massachusetts statute regarding the allocation of funds for trial support services, which authorizes funding whenever a similarly situated non-indigent defendant would be willing to pay for the service, the Massachusetts courts have been loathe to even consider paying for jury consulting services. Part of this reluctance stems from the way in which such funds are allocated in Massachusetts. Most public defenders are actually "bar advocates," private attorneys who sign up to get assigned cases involving indigent criminal defendants. The state agency that oversees this process, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) has a budget, but no authority to spend any of it on trial services. Each attorney must petition the court for the authorization to hire a psychologist, investigator or expert witness. Given the very modest budget for CPCS, combined with the fact that no judge knows how other judges are spending the money, the judiciary as a whole tends to be very stingy for all but obviously necessary expenses.

As I reported in this blog a few years ago, the attorneys for Neil Entwistle, whose case received non-stop pretrial publicity for months leading up to trial, petitioned the court for $1,000 for help from a jury consultant in crafting voir dire questions. The judge denied the request without argument or comment. The default position is clearly, "No dice!"

The good news is that the dam is starting to crack. Over the past few years, attorneys have successfully petitioned the court for small sums of money to retain my services. I lowered my hourly rate very dramatically in order to increase the likelihood that such petitions might have a chance. Recently, I accepted a position with TrialGraphix, a large, national litigation consulting firm. I could no longer work the CPCS cases for peanuts. While management at TrialGraphix was willing to let me work these criminal cases at a substantial discount, a court was going to have to authorize real money to pay for my services.

Recently, I was approached by an attorney concerning a criminal matter for an indigent defendant. I explained that he would have to submit his motion with my new hourly rate. In addition, the case is very complicated and the attorney needed help with several jury-related matters. So, he was going to have to ask for a pretty hefty sum -- several times more than the court had ever awarded me before. We held our breath -- and the judge said "OK."

Perhaps the judiciary is finally becoming enlightened with respect to the difficulties confronted by those facing jury trials for serious criminal charges. Maybe the judge wanted to cover himself against a possible appeal. Maybe I have now developed enough of a track record that judges take these motions seriously. Whatever the reason, I can now say to anyone representing an indigent criminal defendant in Massachusetts, "Don't assume that you can't hire a jury consultant to help you." The door has been opened; it's time to walk through it.

What the Future May Hold

I am less familiar with how funds are allocated for jury consulting services in other states. I know that most states have real public defender offices, with discretionary (although small) budgets. In such a system, court approval is not required to pay for support services. Massachusetts is moving in this direction, which might provide further momentum for these efforts.

I have worked for the Federal Public Defenders Office in Boston and they only require internal authorization to pay for my services. I bill them just like a regular law firm. I can only hope that the CPCS system will evolve into something closer to this model.

A criminal defense attorney whose motion for funds for jury consulting services has been denied need not despair. I have written in this blog many times about the Pro Bono Initiative of the American Society of Trial Consultants (ASTC). I remain the Chair of our Pro Bono Committee and we are more committed than ever to making jury consulting services available to those representing clients of limited means.

Earlier this month, I connected a non-profit legal aid organization in Chicago with a ASTC member consultant to help with thematic development and jury selection. When it was determined that they needed help with graphics and video editing, we found another ASTC member to help with that. So, if you need help, please don't hesitate to contact me or visit the Pro Bono Committee's homepage.

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