SANTA ANA — Under Proposition 115 passed by voters on June 5, judges will now ask most of the questions in choosing a jury. In a way, that's too bad. Lawyers have always provided the most fun.
One of my favorite jury stories involves Bob Goss, the hard-nosed deputy public defender, and Patty Manoukian, the former Orange County prosecutor now a judge in Northern California. It was a murder case, and Manoukian, eight months' pregnant, was by her own definition blimp-sized. Goss, a zealous advocate for his clients, was brazen enough to ask jurors if the fact that she was pregnant might affect their judgment.
One man said he hadn't noticed she was pregnant until Goss brought it up. It was Manoukian--not Goss--who kicked that fellow off the panel. "I don't want anyone going over the evidence who isn't any more observant than that," she said.
Lawyers do seem to ask a lot of meaningless questions in picking jurors. But sometimes you can stop one question too short.
David Haigh of Santa Ana was defending a young Latino man in a case involving a jailhouse death. He asked one woman so many questions he risked the hostility of everyone else in the room who had to listen. Just when he finally started to sit down, he popped back up again.
"Is there anything ," he asked the woman, "that I did not ask, that you think we should know about"? I could only think of two questions he missed: Her favorite color and what she liked for breakfast. But the woman cocked her head to the side and said:
"Well, there is one thing. I don't like Mexicans."
Superior Court Judge Leonard H. McBride rolled his eyes. You couldn't tell what frustrated him the most: The woman's bigotry or the discovery that Haigh had unknowingly wasted 25 minutes of court time.
Sometimes jurors' knowledge before a trial can cost them a seat. In one high-profile case, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James G. Enright knew everyone had read about it. But did they read enough to affect their judgment? One man told Enright he knew only that it was a complicated case.
"But you see," Enright explained, "my job is to convince you that it's not a complicated case at all. If you come in here thinking that, I've already got two strikes against me." The man was excused from the panel.
One young prospective juror seemed unsure why prosecutor Mike McGuire (now in private practice) asked about a college theory course he was taking. The student gladly volunteered he was a strong believer in that professor's ideas.
McGuire bumped him off the panel. He'd had that same professor, and didn't like him. The student, he said, would have made a poor juror with judgment like that.
Too little knowledge can hurt too. One potential juror in the Randy Steven Kraft serial murder trial two years ago was a newspaper police reporter. But he didn't know the names of many of the top people on his city's police department. Neither side wanted him.
Only one lawyer I ever met picked the wrong panel and still won her case. That was Deputy Dist. Atty. Jill W. Robers. The jury gave her the premeditated murder verdict she wanted. But jury members turned her down on the death penalty, explaining later it was because no one would ever know if the killing had been premeditated.
"Bless their hearts," Roberts said. She got the half of the loaf she wanted most--the conviction.