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By David Hejmanowski - Case Study



“The definition of talk has changed. Talk now includes blogging, putting on your Facebook account, text messaging.”

— Judge Vincent Culotta, Lake County Court of Common Pleas

“I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its Constitution.”

— Thomas Jefferson

The large Court TV truck parked in front of the new Delaware County Courthouse all week has been hard to miss. The network has been in town to provide live coverage of a major criminal trial going on in the General Division. That kind of real-time coverage highlights a relatively new issue that courts face in the manner in which they instruct their jurors.

The issue is perhaps most clearly laid out by one of the best, if not the best legal movie of all time. A young man is on trial for murder. His life is on the line and, though we don’t see it, his attorney seems to have given up on him and just gone through the motions in his defense. The jury is nearly unanimous but for one man, Mr. Davis (juror No. 8), who thinks that, with so much on the line, the jurors need to spend more time and seriously review the evidence.

Bit by bit, piece by piece, he casts doubt where there seemingly had been none before. Over the course of 90 minutes of thrilling black and white film, he slowly convinces one juror at a time — recreating evidence, reviewing testimony and examining the motivations of witnesses to reveal the basis for their conclusions and misconceptions. All in all, “12 Angry Men” is almost the perfect textbook for the serious way that jurors should take their responsibility.

Almost.

Henry Fonda’s juror No. 8 makes one major faux pas through the course of the film. Unsatisfied that the defense attorney is taking his duties seriously, he decides to investigate a portion of the evidence for himself. Rather than simply accepting that the murder weapon is unique, he goes out on his own and finds a vendor selling a similar knife on the street. Rather than informing the parties to the case or the presiding judge that he has made this discovery, he simply presents the knife to his fellow jurors to show how common it is.

It’s a dramatic moment in the film and a wonderful plot device for the movie, but in real life it could result in his dismissal as a juror and/or a mistrial in the case. It’s the reason that jurors are instructed not to do their own investigation and not to watch or read media reports about the case they are on. It’s also part of the reason why jurors in some long and serious cases are sometimes sequestered.

The world has changed quite drastically since “12 Angry Men” was released in 1957. There was no Internet then, no cell phones, no texting, tweeting or social media. Those technological advancements have forced courts to make adjustments and have resulted in the advent of new jury instructions that attempt to minimize the effect of technology on the administration of justice.

Jury instructions are scripted mini-lectures that judges use to give juries basic information about their duties, about the standards that apply in cases, and about legal issues that may be present in the case that the jury is trying to decide. The Ohio jury instructions committee is composed of judges, lawyers, and law professors from around the state, including Delaware County’s own Judge David Gormley. It issues new instructions based on changes in the law, and a few years ago added an instruction that tells jurors, “You are required to decide this case based solely on the evidence that is presented to you in this courtroom. It would be a violation of your duties, and unfair to the parties, if you should obtain other information about the case, which might be information that is not admissible as evidence.”

This instruction goes beyond the general and specifically says, “In addition, you absolutely must not try to get information from any other source. The ban on sources outside the courtroom applies to information from all sources such as family, friends, the Internet, reference books, newspapers, magazines, television, radio, a computer, a Blackberry, iPhone, smart phone, and any other electronic device.”

It also warns against television programs “such as Law and Order, Boston Legal, Judge Judy, older shows like L.A. Law, Perry Mason, or Matlock, and any other fictional show dealing with the legal system,” and scientific shows like C.S.I., because they “may leave you with an improper preconceived idea about the legal system.” The shows are simply not realistic and “present unrealistic situations for dramatic effect. While entertaining, TV legal dramas condense, distort, or even ignore many procedures that take place in real cases and real courtrooms.”

The jury instructions are simply guides for judges who may use them verbatim, paraphrase from them or ignore them all together. Regardless of what specific instruction judges use, jurors should listen, follow the instructions given to them and make their decisions fairly based upon the evidence presented to them — the cornerstone of the American jury system.

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By David Hejmanowski

Case Study

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.