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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Challenging Jury Selection in Tarek Mehanna Trial

Followers of The Jury Box Blog know that I have been following closely the case of Tarek Mehanna, since he was arrested and arraigned nearly two years ago. Mehanna, a pharmacist from Sudbury, MA, is accused of engaging in terrorist activities and "providing material support" for Al Qaeda. In addition to have allegedly attempted (unsuccessfully) to receive jihadist training in Yemen and plan the bombing of an American shopping mall, Mehanna is accused of translating into English and posting to websites hundreds of pro-Al Qaeda documents. His case then presents a very difficult question. Can publishing propaganda be considered "providing material support"? Mehanna's defense team desperately wants to turn this into a First Amendment case, while the prosecution aims to prove that the defendants efforts were all aimed at actually furthering the destructive efforts of a terrorist organization.

Tarek Mehanna
You can review my earlier blog posts about the case here. In addition, I gave a talk about Terror Management Theory at Harvard Law School in September, where I focused in on the challenges presented by the Mehanna case. Finally, as the trial got started this week, I was interviewed by WBZ-TV news (the CBS affiliate in Boston) about the challenges associated with picking a jury in this highly charged case. A brief snippet of that interview can be found in the video embedded in this page.) In previous blog posts, as well as the TV interview, I addressed the fact that the default jury selection rules in federal court are ill-suited to handling the myriad problems of intrinsic bias in this case. Having the judge conduct group voir dire in open court is a recipe for disaster. Judge O'Toole, who is presiding over the case, is not exactly known as an innovator on the bench. 

Judge George O'Toole
Jury selection did begin on Monday of this week and we have learned just a few things about how it is proceeding. 

  1. The initial panel of prospective jurors numbered only 60. Given that this could be a two-month trial, this seems to be a really small number. It suggests that the judge is not going to be particularly accommodating with respect to challenges for cause, based either on personal beliefs and experiences, or exposure to pre-trial publicity about the case. 
  2. The group voir dire was pretty much by the book. Everyone was asked a series of yes-or-no questions to which they had to respond affirmatively by raising their hands. Much research on this topic suggests that prospective jurors very often "lie through omission" in this setting, especially with respect to sensitive or controversial topics.
  3. Judge O'Toole did have the good sense to conduct the ensuing individualized voir dire in his chambers. That is, rather than having a prospective juror come up to side-bar for a whispered conversation, with a courtroom full of spectators, fellow jurors and reporters trying to eavesdrop, O'Toole elected to have these conversations in private. Only the judge, a court reporter, the attorneys and the defendant have been permitted into chambers for this part of the voir dire. This should help people feel slightly more comfortable and hopefully forthcoming, as well.
  4. Despite much research that shows that jurors tend to be more open, honest and forthcoming when questioned by attorneys, Judge O'Toole is insisting on conducting the voir dire himself. In addition to the general intimidation factor, this runs the risk of jurors trying to anticipate the "right" answers to his questions, or trying to please him with their responses. 
  5. The other major problem with this judge-conducted voir dire is the insistence of judges to ask the "Can you be fair?" question. "Notwithstanding the fact that you have read 30 or 40 stories about the defendant in the Boston Herald over the past two years, Mr. Smith, do you think you can put aside any opinions you've encountered and be fair?" Research on this shows that people who confidently answer "yes" to such a question consistently exhibit more bias against defendants than people who admit that their exposure to pretrial publicity might have compromised their impartiality. Self-reflective jurors just tend to be more conscientious.
  6. We have learned a few things about what each side has asked to be included in the voir dire questions. Mehanna’s lawyers asked the judge to question prospective jurors about whether they have any family or close personal friends who were directly affected by Sept. 11 and if they attended any memorial service commemorating Sept. 11. This is a reasonable question, given that it is experiential, rather than opinion-based.
  7. The defense also asked for prospective jurors to be questioned about whether evidence that Mehanna greatly admired bin Laden would make it difficult for them to be impartial. This question is poorly worded, in that it asks for a level of self-reflection and self-evaluation unattainable by most people. Responses to such a question just aren't remotely reliable.
  8. Mehanna’s lawyers also want the judge to ask jurors whether they could be impartial after hearing evidence that Mehanna, an American-born Muslim, supported the destruction of the World Trade Center. This question suffers from the maladies as the previous one. The defense team is really in a quandary here because they are forced to phrase questions as yes-or-no and the judge will insist on wording about impartiality.
  9. Prosecutors, meanwhile, focused their proposed questions on attitudes about how some evidence against Mehanna was collected. They asked the judge to question jurors on whether they believe the use of electronic wiretaps is unfair and would make them unable to be impartial in evaluating the evidence against Mehanna. Again, the form of this question is terrible. It would be much better to just ask each prospective juror to talk a little bit about her views on the weighing of civil liberties against national security. Open-ended questions always work much better.
  10. The government also wants the judge to ask if jurors have any “fixed feelings or impressions” about Arabs or Muslims that would make it difficult for them to listen to the evidence with an open mind. My sense is that the only people who will answer in the affirmative here are folks trying to get out of serving.
To sum up then, the decision to hold individual voir dire in chambers should increase the willingness of prospective jurors to be candid and forthcoming. The public may never learn how these interviews have been conducted. I only hope that Judge O'Toole, outside of the media spotlight, will treat this voir dire as an opportunity to have more of a conversation with jurors, rather than peppering them with the traditional barrage of challenging questions.

Attorney John W. Carney, Jr.
Perhaps there is hope, given how upbeat Mehanna's defense attorney, John Carney, was at the end of Tuesday's session. He told reporters, "We're very pleased with the thoroughness with which Judge O'Toole is questioning prospective jurors. We are optimistic that we will get a fair and thoughtful jury in this case."

I wonder if the prosecutor is as sanguine....

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