Monday, November 28, 2011

Response to John Kass: Don't Hang the Juror

By now you’ve probably heard that Bill Cellini might get another trial. About two weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune reported that one of the other jurors concealed her criminal record during the jury selection process. Cellini’s lawyers have since filed for a mistrial.

In the wake of this news, the Angry Readers (i.e., regular people who leave comments) at the Chicago Tribune website have spoken: They’re angry at Judge Zagel for not ordering background checks on the jurors, at the prosecuting attorneys for not running checks themselves, and at defense attorney Dan Webb, whose mock surprise doesn't seem to be fooling anybody.

But the Angry Readers are most angry, by far, at the juror.

Many Angry Readers have settled for calling the juror a "liar," but others have escalated their name-calling to more inflammatory levels, using descriptors such as “crackhead,” “loser,” "asshole," and "scumbag." Many have called for her to be prosecuted and punished. “This lady needs to do some serious time in jail,” reads one comment. “She is corrupt and apparently not capable of giving an honest answer to a simple question.” Others are a little more forceful: "Send her [to prison] on the same bus you put BLAGO on!"

And the Angry Readers have good company in Tribune opinion writer John Kass. Kass's article in last week’s Tribune places most of the blame on Judge Zagel, who he chides for his “arrogance” in not ordering background checks or releasing juror’s names to the media.

But if you read between the lines, it’s clear that, just like the Angry Readers, Kass is also pretty angry with the juror in question. For example, he describes the juror as: "The one who. . . may have screwed up Illinois' most important political corruption case in years."

Kass goes on to describe a visit he made to the juror's apartment. He was met at the door by a man and a young boy, who turned him away. Kass describes his parting words to the boy:

She has nothing to be afraid of, I lied. Don't worry, I told him. Then we left.
Actually, she has reason to be afraid. Perjury is a federal offense, punishable by prison. And she's made some important people look awfully foolish.
She may have cost prosecutors and taxpayers an important conviction, and the expense of an extra trial.
The message is subtle but clear: this juror deserves just as much blame as anyone else. (In fact, she deserves more blame; she is, after all, the only person involved in this fiasco who is at risk of going to jail.) Even though Kass doesn't say that she should be prosecuted and sent to prison, he also doesn't imply that she ought to be spared from such a fate.

And I understand why John Kass and the Angry Readers feel this way. I really do. Here’s how I reacted to the news:

I received a group email from one of the other jurors with a link to the story. I clicked on the link and read the article. Then I read it again. I stood up and paced around my apartment. Then I sat down at my desk and read the article a third, fourth, a fifth time. I tried to work for a few hours, but I couldn’t concentrate, so I turned off my phone, shut my laptop, and took my dog for a long walk. Then I came home and sat on the couch and stared off into space for an indeterminate period of time.

I've had a pretty fortunate life: no major tragedies, no major health issues, a great family and a good education. So this statement may seem both excessive and naive to some, but here it is anyway: I couldn't remember feeling so frustrated and angry about anything, ever.

But I wasn't mad at that juror.

The juror has been accused of lying under oath during her jury selection interview. Let me explain what the jury selection process for this trial was like, from the prospective of a juror: There was a lot of sitting. Nothing happened for a very, very long time, and no one could tell us when anything would or could happen. And then all at once some names got called, and we were led into a smaller room. In that room, our names were called one-by-one. When my name was called, I was led down a narrow hallway to a nondescript door. The door opened and I walked into the courtroom. The first thing I saw when I walked into the room were countless unsmiling faces looking back at me, including the judge, the defendant, two teams of lawyers, the defendant's family, and benches full of reporters, every last one of them ready to scribble down every word I was about to say.

I am a pretty confident person, comfortable with the attention of a room full of people, but my heart was racing when I entered that room. When I sat down and Judge Zagel asked me to state and spell my name, I could hardly gather the breath to respond.

And I don't even have a criminal record. I can’t imagine what must have been going through that juror’s mind when she sat for her interview, but I think I know why she lied. It wasn’t because she was biased. It wasn’t a covert attempt to get on the jury – that’s absurd. She lied because she was afraid to tell a roomful of reporters that she had a DUI and a record of cocaine possession over a decade ago. Because who the hell knows what those reporters are going take to print or put on the air? For all she knew, her statement would be public record in time for the 5 o'clock news. What did she stand to lose by answering those questions truthfully – her career, her family?

And why should she be forced into that situation? Keep in mind jury duty is not something one volunteers for.

Fortunately, for every “Angry Reader” calling for this juror’s head, there is a “Cooler Head” that points out the flaws in the system, who points out the numerous opportunities that were missed to excuse the juror. They point out the irony of those Angry Readers, the ones who call for the juror to be prosecuted and sent to prison and (in the same breath) bemoan the colossal waste of taxpayer dollars on a Cellini retrial. Some Cooler Heads even empathize with the juror; one notes that the point of the jury selection process is to vet for qualified jurors, not to publically embarrass regular citizens.

There is one culprit in this mess at whom no one seems to be pointing the finger: What about the Tribune itself? Or the Sun-Times? Or ABC7 or NBC5 or CBS2? If I recall correctly, first thing I did when I sat down for my interview was state and spell my name. So why would the media outlets wait until after the trial to run their background checks? Those reporters had a whole month to match the names they heard during jury interviews with the faces that sat in the jury box every day. I know for a fact that at least one young reporter, who visited me at my apartment the day our verdict came down, remembered that I had testified about graduating from Northwestern. At some point during the trial, I checked my blog stats and found that a handful of people had discovered my blog by using Google search terms such as “William Nast Chicago.” Only about 20 people read this blog on a regular basis – and not one of them refers to me as “William.” So somebody was checking me out; and all they had to do was piece the information together. Collectively, these media outlets have more resources at their disposal than the judge and either team of lawyers. The fact that all those reporters waited for Judge Zagel to hand our names over to them seems, to be frank, pretty lazy journalism.

But I am less disturbed by the reader reactions, or the possibility of a new trial, or the flaws in the system that led us here, than I am by the thought of what that juror is going through right now. The young boy who met Kass at her apartment told him simply, “she’s scared.” That image truly haunts me.

That feeling sharply contrasts the feeling I had in the days after the trial ended, when I couldn’t help but relate what a positive experience it had been for me, especially deliberation. Every juror in that room conducted themselves with class and integrity, and though I might have less faith in the legal system than I had a few weeks ago, I still have the same respect for those eleven people, including her.

If I could talk to her now, I would tell her this: I understand. And I feel awful for what’s happened to you. And I wish you the best. I know I can’t ease your fears, but I offer this bit of consolation: the Angry Readers often have the louder voices, but the Cooler Heads typically prevail.

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