The trial of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin is underway. It took nine days to select the jury of six women who’ll decide his fate. One likely reason it took so long is because the jury is going to be sequestered for the duration of the trial, which could be as long as a month.
Sequestration means the jurors will be living in a hotel during the trial, with limited contact with their family and restricted access to their cell phones, the Internet, TV and newspapers.
In some cases, such as those involving organized crime, sequestration is intended to protect the jurors from physical intimidation and threats to their safety.
For most cases in which sequestration is used, however, the goal is to shield jurors from outside influence and ensure that their ultimate verdict is based solely on the evidence presented in the courtroom—not on anything reported in the media.
But I think sequestering juries now for the latter reason is like locking the barn door after the horse has bolted.
When a case has gotten a tremendous amount of media coverage before the trial even begins, potential jurors have already been exposed to a lot of information that may never be revealed in court.
For example, the judge in the Zimmerman case recently ruled that two prosecution experts won’t be permitted to testify about the identity of a man screaming on the 911 call.
Of course, various media outlets reported on what those experts were expected to say if they had testified. And since the jurors were not yet sequestered when this ruling was made, they were free to read these reports.
Both sides questioned potential jurors extensively about their exposure to information about the case in the media.
Presumably, those who were accepted indicated they either hadn’t been exposed to coverage of the case at all—a dubious claim—or had read or heard such coverage but promised not to consider it when deliberating.
For example, at least one sitting juror had read or heard about the case, saying she used it as a cautionary tale for her own children.
So what are we shielding the jurors from now?
After all, the media coverage that the jury will now be shielded from is the coverage of the trial itself—mostly information to which the jurors will already be privy.
It’s also important to remember that sequestration can be expensive, especially for a long trial. For example, sequestering the 16 jurors in the Casey Anthony case for 43 days cost $350,000.
The costs of sequestration aren’t solely financial, either. It imposes a big burden on jurors and their families, both practically and emotionally.
Being in a strange environment can lead to sleepless nights. Parents are cut off from their children, who may not understand why mom or dad has suddenly disappeared. Husbands and wives are separated from their spouses and may be forced to take on the role of single parent.
And this stress and isolation may very well impact the verdict, compelling jurors to make a decision—whether guilty or not guilty—quickly so they can go home.
I’m not convinced that in this age of media saturation, the costs of sequestration are outweighed by the benefits. To use another cliché, it seems to me that by the time a jury is cut off from exposure to the case in the media, the cat’s already out of the bag.
Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.