Guest column: What were they thinking?

Stephen M. Halsey

Stephen M. Halsey

There is a column appearing in major newspapers entitled “News of the Weird.” The stories are about people who do amazingly stupid things which cause us to ask, “What were they thinking?” Often these stories involve lawsuits, crimes, lawyers and judges. Here are a few recent stories in the media that involve people in the judicial system.

• A big law firm was representing a business in a jury trial in Texas. The veteran lawyer decided to try to gain an advantage during jury selection by sending a young associate in the law firm to sneak into the jury assembly room, posing as a juror, to eavesdrop on prospective jurors’ conversations to see what they were talking about. Contact between lawyers and jurors is strictly forbidden. These lawyers are now in significant trouble with the trial judge and likely with their state lawyers discipline board.

• After a French trial over claims brought by Michael Jackson fans against his doctor, the winning parties were awarded one Euro each, the equivalent of about $1.35. They want the right to visit Michael Jackson’s grave, which is closed to the public.

• In 2005, a New York judge sent 46 defendants to jail on one day when none of them would admit their cellphone rang in the courtroom. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct Chairman called it “two hours of viral lunacy.” The judge was removed from office and later ran for state assembly.

Many of the strange stories in the past couple of years involve jurors leaving town mid-trial or violating the judge’s warnings not to discuss the case on social media (such as Facebook) or do independent research on the Internet during the trial. Here are just a few:

• A Minnesota criminal defendant searched jurors’ names on the Internet and joined them anonymously in a “Farmville” game online. The jurors discovered it, reported it to the trial judge, and a mistrial was declared. The defendant was charged with jury tampering.

• During a Kansas first-degree murder trial a juror, using the pseudonym BePrepared, commented on the trial in the “comments” section of a newspaper covering the trial.

• After a New York trial had recessed, a juror (who is an attorney) left the courthouse looking for a taxi, but a defense attorney in the case beat her to the taxi door. The juror gave the attorney the universal gesture of disdain (the middle finger) as he went away in the cab. The juror was dismissed from the jury because she had read a newspaper article about the case, not because of the taxi incident.

• In separate cases, jurors in trials left town (abandoning jury service) without permission from the judge, one for a business trip, another to go to Mexico. Both were found in contempt of court.

• During a murder trial, a juror was getting non-verbal cues from her husband in the audience, such as nodding (affirmative) and shaking (negative) his head during testimony and arguments. The convicted defendant was granted a hearing as to whether this violated his constitutional right to a fair trial.

As in life in general, what some people do in court is stranger than what we could make up.

Steve Halsey is a judge in Wright County District Court, Chambered in Buffalo. Halsey is the host of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District.

up arrow