Experts say untruthful jurors pose a rare hazard in court

AP News
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Posted: Jun 26, 2015 4:34 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Guilty verdicts in some of the nation's most high-profile criminal cases have been thrown out recently because of jurors who were not truthful. But despite the recent problems with jurors, legal experts say these cases are the exception.

On Tuesday, a Nashville judge set aside the guilty verdicts against two former Vanderbilt football players who are accused in the rape of an unconscious female student. It was prompted by revelations that the jury foreman had failed to disclose that he had been a victim of a sex crime.

"In the scheme of the millions of jurors that serve every year in the thousands of cases that go on, the incidents like this are rare," said Andrew Ferguson, an associate professor at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia and author of "Why Jury Duty Matters." The cases generate headlines, he said, because of the consequences in terms of cost and forcing victims and their families to relive another trial.

Defense attorneys argued that the juror in the Vanderbilt case deliberately withheld his past victimization, successfully lobbied to be the jury foreman and gave numerous media interviews after finding the former players guilty.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in New York threw out the conviction of former Deutsche Bank broker David Parse, a lawyer from an affluent Chicago suburb who is accused in what prosecutors have called the largest criminal tax fraud in history. The U.S. Second Court of Appeals said in its decision that one of the jurors faked her identity to get on the jury and failed to reveal she had past arrests.

A lower court judge referred to the woman as a "pathological liar." The juror claimed to be a stay-at-home mom, court records show, when in fact she was a suspended attorney who had been arrested several times and was married to a career criminal.

After the federal appeals court decision, one of Parse's attorneys told the Associated Press that his client was innocent and looked forward to being vindicated at a retrial before an impartial jury.

Nashville prosecutors are vowing to retry the Vanderbilt rape case. Former football players Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey had been jailed and were awaiting sentencing after being convicted of multiple counts of aggravated rape in January. Both were released from jail on bond on Wednesday.

Jury foreman Todd Easter has declined to comment through his attorney.

The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual abuse, but Easter, 31, agreed to have his name used in news stories.

A Sumner County, Tennessee, man was convicted of multiple counts of statutory rape involving Easter when he was 16.

In his decision to set aside the guilty verdicts in the Vanderbilt case, Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins noted that lawyers asked prospective jurors more than 100 times if they had been a victim of a sexual assault or experienced unwanted touching. The questions were asked in a courtroom full of prospective jurors, media and lawyers.

When attorneys asked Easter if he knew anyone who was a victim, he responded by saying "No one super close to me."

Sometimes it's better to individually ask prospective jurors outside the presence of so many other people when it comes to sensitive issues like being a victim of a sexual assault, one legal expert said.

"You're in a group of people and, whether male or female, that's a very sensitive topic that most people wouldn't feel comfortable addressing in a group," said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a professor of law at the University of Dayton in Ohio who blogs about juries.

Ferguson agreed that questioning jurors individually on sensitive topics might garner more truthful responses in some cases. Still, he says it's unfortunate that the bad acts of one juror can smear the good work of the others on the jury. "There are few news stories about the good jurors who do their jobs."