The 800 Lb. Doggie In The Harris County Jury Room

Potential jurors are subject to a great many influences, ranging from their personal experiences to the crap they watch on TV.  Try as we might to ferret out these influences, it’s not always possible. While some will proudly announce their prejudice, most believe they are fair, reasonable people. Of course, that’s what most people believe of themselves, no matter how prejudiced they are, because their prejudice is fair and reasonable or they wouldn’t hold the beliefs.

But Harris County clerk, Chris Daniel, took it a step beyond the pale.

Harris

It wasn’t done with malice, but ignorance.  Daniel brought the cute drug doggie into the jury waiting room to entertain the jurors by showing them the glories of wonderdogs who protect and serve by catching drug dealers. Yay, dogs!!!

It didn’t occur to Daniel that these were individuals about to be potentially selected for the duty of deciding whether this exact thing, drug doggies, were sufficiently worthy of credibility to put a human being in prison.  And right before they were shuffled out to a courtroom, Daniels thought it a good idea to put on a demonstration of how wonderful, how accurate, how trustworthy, how adorable, these fine doggies were.

What could he be thinking?

The demonstration was put together by K9s4Cops, a charity group founded five years ago by Houstonian Kristi Schiller. It raises money to provide law enforcement dogs to a variety of different agencies across the country. Schiller says the charity was simply invited to tell its story.

“We’re just trying to raise money to do what’s right to keep our schools safe and our communities safe,” said Schiller. “We certainly don’t want to be vilified by the criminal defense attorneys.”

Of course you’re just trying to “keep our schools safe and our communities safe.” What else could you possibly be trying to do?

Daniel, for his part, says he never intended to influence the jurors.

“Our point wasn’t about pro law enforcement or pro defense; our point was to get people excited and make them want to come to jury duty,” Daniel said. In other words, he was just trying to entertain the jurors.

Jury duty is, by definition, a bore.  If we could harness the energy spent trying to get out of jury duty, we would light the nation in perpetuity.  So why not try to make jury duty, a vital component of citizenship, more entertaining, right?

The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association says just because the plan was well meaning doesn’t mean it was well thought out.

“Having a police officer, a K9 unit, come into jury assembly, gives them an insider’s edge into law enforcement or how a K9 unit works, without a judge ruling if that’s admissible,” said HCCLA President JoAnne Musick, “it’s an outside influence on jurors or perspective jurors, and jurors are supposed to be shielded from outside or undue influences.”

Yes, that would be the same JoAnne Musick who writes at Fault Lines. As she says, there’s no judge in there. No defense lawyer in there. No expert to explain how the cute doggies will react to anything their handlers want them to react to. Maybe if they asked a few totally innocent jurors to take the cash out of their pockets and see if they get a hit, the demonstration might have been a little more balanced.

But JoAnne’s point, that influencing jurors in advance of their service is exactly the opposite of what should be done, isn’t blunted by good intentions or official cluelessness.  Remember those guys handing out fliers outside the courthouse about jury nullification, and getting arrested for it?  Remember how they got arrested for jury tampering?  What District Clerk Daniel did was substantially worse, significantly more directed toward tampering than what any jury nullification advocate has ever done.  No, Daniel was not arrested.

To his credit, Chris Daniel, after some prodding, figured out that putting on a cop and doggie show in the jury assembly room wasn’t a brilliant entertainment idea.

The District Clerk said he heard from several judges and defense attorneys via phone and on social media over the last 24 hours. Although he remains insistent he had no ill intent, he got the point.

“The defense bar raised valid points, and so we’re just not going to repeat this in the future,” Daniel said.

Problem solved? Well, to the extent the problem is limited to something as flagrantly wrong and idiotic as this, perhaps.  But the courthouse remains replete with examples of prejudice that are similarly not-ill-intended and yet convey a clear message to potential jurors about who the good guys are.  That they’re not as flagrant as this doesn’t make their message less harmful.

Like what? There’s the fact that cops get to walk in, guns in their holsters, while non-cops don’t. Because they’re the good guys, trustworthy to a fault. And, of course, so too for prosecutors, while many courthouses make defense lawyers empty their pockets. Who you gonna trust?

There are the kindly guys in uniforms, shields on their chests and guns at their hip, bringing food and libation to jurors, asking what more can I do to make your experience pleasant? That’s right, the court officers who attend to the jurors, who bear a marked similarity to the police officers, all being cut from the same cloth.

And even the name by which we call the players in the courtroom drama, The People, on the one side and the defendant on the other.  Whom would you vote for, the People or the defendant?  If you have trouble figuring out who is who, the defendant is always seated at the table farthest away from the jury, so that he can’t attack and kill them. Because he’s presumed innocent and dangerous.

Does it really matter, given that Americans are weaned on a steady diet of television shows about how law enforcement saves us from the terrorists, rapists, drug dealers and people we wouldn’t want our daughter to date?  Well, that’s TV, and we’re all certainly smart enough to realize that it’s just a dramatization, not truth.  Then again, if we were all that smart, Chris Daniel wouldn’t have needed someone to explain to him that putting on a drug dog demo to potential jurors was blatantly wrong and bordered on criminal jury tampering.

 

17 comments on “The 800 Lb. Doggie In The Harris County Jury Room

  1. Aaron

    Unbelievably dumb. But then again, the former clerk where I’m from is in prison for selling narcotics out of the courthouse evidence lockers. By the way, the site upgrade looks nice.

    1. SHG Post author

      Just added a mobile plugin. I haven’t actually seen it myself, so glad it looks nice. As for your former clerk, at least he had a profit motive. Better than just being a moron.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    Thoughtless, rather than moronic. Everyone knows that drug dogs are reliable, that the police are trustworthy, and that jurors are best treated as children who need entertainment to prevent them from becoming restless and disruptive. How could you possibly influence jurors merely by presenting facts that they already know? Besides it was for charity! And dogs! Why do you hate dogs?

  3. JD

    Why not have the defense bar contribute as well? Say perhaps providing potential jurors with adult coloring books which illustrate in simple terms the concept of testilying and how to identify it.

  4. Frank

    Problem is, the same thesis can (and has) been used to arrest people for passing out FIJA literature in front of the courthouse.

          1. Troutwaxer

            Cute, but I don’t generally google acronyms. It’s possible to get dozens of different results, none of which are one I’m looking for.

            1. SHG Post author

              I completely understand. Why waste your time when you can ask someone else and waste theirs?

  5. zoe

    “…So why not try to make jury duty, a vital component of citizenship, more entertaining, right?..”

    Maybe they should show movies instead. Like, “12 Angry Men” or “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

    “RoboCop”?

  6. Robb Fickman

    In Houston Texas, our Courthouse is a giant stacked deck. In this county 3 prosecutors are assigned to each court. They get buddy buddy with the court & staff. In many courts the judge, the court staff and the Prosecutors are one big happy family with the shared goal of getting the presumptively guilty found guilty as quickly as possible. In other words, down here, the prosecution has plenty of help; they ain’t in need of the Clerk’s help.

    Our clerk is an amiable fellow but this is not his first jury tampering incident.
    A few years ago he had some money to make some posters to encourage jury service. He had the posters made and plastered all over town. One was plastered in the foyer of the criminal courthouse -Right there where Jesus and all prospective jurors would see it. The poster depicted three individuals in uniform and it said ” they serve, so should you” or words to that effect.

    And who was depicted in this poster? A firefighter, a soldier and … Drum roll… You guessed it a uniformed cop. The first two pictures were fine, the third picture of the cop was not.

    The cop wasn’t an actor wearing a uniform. He was a real live cop who testified all the time. The poster was an endorsement of that cop and every other cop. We pointed out to our clerk that this poster just made the court’s job tougher. The court needs potential jurors to pretend they will treat cop testimony the same as human testimony. The poster encouraged cops to be accorded more special treatment from the jurors.

    Well this is Texas. We all know the jurors love the cops but we sure the hell dont need the clerk blatantly encouraging bias in the damn courthouse Lobby. So we raised a stink and the ill-conceived posters came down.

    Actions have ramifications. Our courthouse is pro-prosecution enough. Jurors don’t need posters or dog shows or any other crap.

    If they jurors are bored give them a copy of the Bill of Rights to Read. Or show them Michael Morton’s movie.

    Robb Fickman
    Houston, Texas

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