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.
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.