Most people groan at the thought of jury duty, and many concoct colorful excuses to get out of serving on a trial.
But when the defendant is Michael Jackson (search), it turns out few prospective jurors tell lawyers and the judge to “Beat It.”
The trial is expected to take half a year, and the charges Jackson faces are serious — he’s accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy with cancer. Nevertheless, an unusually small number of jury prospects have said they can’t serve — or, in court lingo, "claimed hardship."
“I’d be very concerned that so many jurors are eager to give up six months of their life to sit in what is bound to be a rather unsavory trial,” said Stan Goldman, FOX News legal affairs editor and a Loyola Law School (search) professor.
Jackson jury screening took a day less than expected because more than half the prospects — about 250 of 430 — said they could report for duty.
And experts say that in an off-the-charts courtroom circus such as this one, the defense and prosecution should be leery of grandiose hidden agendas among juror wannabes.
“They may want to write a book, appear on television,” said Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University Law Center (search) professor and celebrity trial analyst. “They may perceive that by bringing in a verdict one way or the other, they’ll be more marketable.”
When jury selection starts again Tuesday, any zeal among juror hopefuls should cause the judge and lawyers to prick up their ears.
Aside from hidden motives, there might also be pre-trial hidden feelings about Jackson’s guilt or innocence among those keen on shaping his fate.
“Some people are going to have already made up their minds about him because he’s Michael Jackson,” said FOX News legal analyst Lis Wiehl, associate professor at the University of Washington School of Law (search). “They hate him because he’s kind of strange, or they love him because they love his music; they’ve grown up with him and he’s an idol.”
Rothstein agreed that Jackson's fame poses a problem for lawyers on both sides of the case.
“The prosecution is fighting his celebrity, especially someone with a big fan base like Michael Jackson,” said Rothstein, an attorney who covered the O.J. Simpson, Oliver North, Marion Barry and Manuel Noriega trials and has represented several well-known politicians. “A lot of people who like his music aren’t going to be able to believe he’s guilty.”
And the defense has to cope with vindictive jealousy among people who want to be jurors because they “like to see the mighty fall,” Rothstein said.
In the legal world, such faux fair-and-impartial types are referred to as “stealth jurors,” a term bandied about at least since the O.J. Simpson (search) trial in the mid-'90s and during other high-profile cases, such as the Scott Peterson (search) double-murder trial.
Simpson was acquitted in 1995 for the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, and prosecutor Marcia Clark (search) complained that the “stealth juror” problem contributed to the outcome.
Wiehl described the feared juror as "somebody who says all the right things but isn’t really … fair and impartial. Those are people that both sides have to weed out. They have to find jurors who are going to try the case on the evidence presented.”
Attorneys get a limited number of peremptory challenges they can use to eliminate potential jurors without giving a reason, because of a bad gut feeling about that person. Race and gender can’t factor into the decision.
Lawyers also get unlimited chances to toss juror wannabes because of challenges for cause, meaning there are clear and forceful reasons such people wouldn’t be fair or impartial.
Those who are “the head of the Michael Jackson fan club, come in with one of his albums under one arm or think sex with little boys is just dandy” will offer the prosecution a chance to submit a challenge for cause, Goldman said.
Likewise, he added, those who are “related to the D.A. or … were molested as a child” could be rejected by the defense for cause.
Legal eagles agree that jury selection in a star-studded trial is a thorny process. Both sides in this case have hired juror consultants, and the judge and attorneys should “be more alert than in the usual case to subliminal signals from the jurors,” including body language and tone of voice, Rothstein said.
“There’s no exact science to this,” Wiehl said. “It's instinct; it's gut. It’s looking people in the eye and taking your best shot.”
Jackson will get a fair trial, Rothstein predicted. But as for the panel of 12 jurors and eight alternates who will decide Jackson’s fate, it’s probably naïve to believe it will fit the description written in law books, he said.
“A jury of your own peers? That’s a legal fiction. There are no peers to Michael Jackson.”