Questions to give insight into Jackson jury pool
LOS ANGELES — When 104 people report for possible jury service on Monday in a lawsuit over Michael Jackson’s untimely death, lawyers for the singer’s mother and the concert promoter she is suing will already know them well.
Each person will have filled out a 123-question, 24-page questionnaire probing their views not only on Jackson and his famous family, but the singer’s life, death, the media and how they feel about multimillion dollar jury verdicts. It’s taken nearly two weeks to collect the potential jurors, who range from a sitting Superior Court judge to retirees and unemployed job-seekers. On Monday, in-person questioning will begin and offer attorneys their final chance to talk to jurors and have them answer back. Experts say the process known as voir dire — a French phrase meaning to speak the truth — doesn’t win or lose a case but is essential for both sides to start framing the case for jurors and weed out anyone hostile to their side.
“I think the first concept to understand with jury selection is it’s really more jury de-selection,” said Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor who now handles defense cases for the Gibson Dunn & Crutcher law firm.
McRae said attorneys will need to find out who in the group “has the ability to telescope their focus on the sole issues before the court.”
“You can’t say at the beginning that this wins the case,” said John T. Nockleby, director of the Civil Justice Program at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. “But it does set the stage in a way that what the lawyers hope, they have fair-minded, thoughtful citizens.”
Unlike the 2011 criminal trial that ended with former cardiologist Conrad Murray’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s death, the civil case will focus on the pop singer’s possible role in his own demise.
The trial will also focus on the “Thriller” singer’s troubled finances, and whether AEG wielded too much influence over a cash-strapped Murray.
Murray was convicted of giving Jackson a fatal dose of the anesthetic propofol in the singer’s bedroom. He had been acting as the superstar’s personal physician in advance of a series of comeback concerts titled “This Is It,” but the singer and AEG had not signed off on Murray’s $150,000 a month contract.
AEG has denied wrongdoing. Its attorney, Marvin S. Putnam, has said the company could not foresee that Murray would give Jackson a hospital-grade anesthetic in the singer’s bedroom.
Jackson’s mother, Katherine, filed the case on behalf of herself and her son’s three children. Their attorneys have pegged the potential damages at $40 billion, but jurors will have to determine any amount the family receives.
The case pits the family of an international superstar against AEG, which has been a major catalyst in the revival of downtown Los Angeles with its Staples Center arena and plans to return professional football to the city.
Several potential jurors have been excused for having business ties to AEG, while one person who manages the son of Jackson’s close friend Diana Ross, was also excused.
Brian Panish, who represents Katherine Jackson and is a veteran of numerous large-scale trials, has said repeatedly in court that many of the 104 people in the jury pool have expressed strong opinions on their questionnaires that may get them disqualified.
The direct questioning of jurors is likely to elicit more strong reactions.
“The state courts in Southern California and LA in particular are a highly eclectic mix of people,” said Philip Anthony, the CEO of the jury consultant firm DecisionQuest. “There’s a sociology that takes place when a group of people in LA get together — they act with a certain vibrancy.
“They’re not afraid to pass judgment on people and things,” Anthony said.
Nockleby said judges ideally want a mix of people from different backgrounds, as long as they can hear the case and decide it on the evidence and law. The selection process generally demonstrates the strength of the jury system.
“You realize that here are a lot of very capable citizens who can make judgments about life and death and yes, lots of money,” Nockleby said.
The written questionnaires in the case will give attorneys on both sides a wealth of information about potential jurors — everything from whether they’ve experienced financial problems to their own experiences with doctors. Some have already requested private meetings to discuss their issues.
Anthony said jurors written questionnaires are effective at getting into a person’s “privacy of their own thoughts.” The only more effective tool of jury selection is having a judge question a panelist one-on-one, he said. Instead, the Jackson jury pool will be questioned in a 300-seat courtroom at Los Angeles’ main civil courtroom.
The questionnaires, Anthony and others said, will be crucial. “They are much more open and candid in their own reactions,” Anthony said.
McRae, who has taught trial advocacy at Harvard Law School, said directly questioning jurors is a unique opportunity for trial lawyers. “It’s the only time the jury answers,” he said. “You’re able to really get as much information from the jury as you can.”