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New York - Some Verdicts Just Make You Scratch Your Head


How could jurors convict Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani of conspiring to blow up buildings, but not of conspiring to murder the people in them?

How did a jury reach the conclusion last year that a saleswoman for Saks Fifth Avenue was not guilty of stealing $1.4 million through illegal giveaways, yet guilty of stealing for earning commission on the transactions?


Trials in the American justice system are usually settled with one or two words: guilty or not guilty.

But those endings can often leave a curious public feeling a bit empty, and perhaps even baffled.

That is usually the case in trials in which there are verdicts on multiple counts that seem to contradict each other. The latest example came Thursday when jurors in Federal District Court in Manhattan acquitted Mr. Ghailani of all but one count of conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property for the 1998 terrorist bombings of the United States Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Some people question how that does not equate to conspiring to murder.

But the jurors were anonymous, and they were ushered from the building by United States marshals, and, therefore, were unavailable to explain their collective thinking.

Courthouse Confidential asks whether guilty-not guilty verdicts are not enough, and whether the system should require jurors to provide explanations for their verdicts. A radical idea, no doubt. But far-fetched?

Often in European countries, judges, not juries, are the ones who decide cases, providing an opinion with their verdict. In civil cases in the United States, jurors may be asked to answer questions about their conclusions on a case, in addition to delivering a verdict. When the answers to the questions are inconsistent with the verdict, the judge may change the verdict so that it is consistent with the answers.

To some people, however, the less we know about how a jury reaches a decision, the better.

“The scary thing about it is, to find out what really juries are doing might question some of the basic assumptions of its legitimacy,” said Edward J. Bronson, a professor emeritus at California State University at Chico. “To find out how stupid some of the decisions and opinions are, maybe that’s something we might not as soon want to find out.”

It is no secret that jurors sometimes may decide cases through things like compromise. Eleven jurors see it one way, so to wrangle in the lone holdout they may convict on a lesser charge but throw out a higher charge.

“When I was a prosecutor, our rule was always don’t talk to the jury, principally because even though you want to know, you don’t really want to know,” said Paul Shechtman, a Manhattan defense lawyer who teaches a class on evidentiary rules at Columbia University.

As a defense lawyer, Mr. Shechtman said, he will sometimes call jurors after a case if it is allowed. But often there is little to be done with the information gleaned.

The American system of jurisprudence essentially shields the jury’s process from scrutiny, Mr. Shechtman said. Rather than appealing a jury’s verdict based on the jury’s rationale, lawyers appeal based on what information was or was not presented to jurors, Mr. Shechtman said.

“Even if a juror were to write and say, ‘We misinterpreted the judge’s instructions,’ the answer is, ‘Too bad,’ ” Mr. Shechtman said.

In Tanner v. United States, a case in the 1980s in which the defendants were convicted of mail fraud, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the post-trial admission by jurors that some of them had drunk alcohol, smoked marijuana and ingested cocaine during breaks in testimony was not enough to overturn the verdict.

John Clark, a professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, has studied juror behavior and said it was clear that “jurors bring into the deliberation their personalities, their attitudes, their values, their beliefs.”

While parsing why they voted the way they did may not serve much of a legal purpose — it will not change the outcome of a case — such research could still have value, he said.

“Long-term wise, attorneys can benefit in knowing why,” Mr. Clark said. “They can use it in the future in their trials.”

But for now, American jurists seem happy with the way the system is. Mr. Bronson said that jurors may be able to apply more common sense if they don’t have to explain their verdicts.

“In a lot of cases, that might be the most sensible way to operate — to not follow a strict legal analysis that requires a certain verdict,” he said.

And getting access to jurors after a trial may not be easy, as some judges stress to jurors that deliberations should remain private.

After a jury on Thursday convicted a man of second-degree murder in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the judge, Justice Daniel P. FitzGerald, told jurors that they were free to discuss the case, but advised caution.

“There have been cases where some jurors in a trial become reluctant witnesses,” Justice FitzGerald said, referring to cases in which jurors may be questioned when lawyers appeal based on something they said. “I don’t think any of you want to come back and testify.”

For judges, the reason for the warnings against speaking publicly about the verdict is twofold. First, they realize that jurors’ comments could sincerely affect the outcome of a case. Second, they see an advantage to keeping what went on during deliberations behind closed doors.

“It’s sort of a breach of trust, if nothing else, to those jurors who were candid back there and kind of expected that the conversations were going to remain private,” a Manhattan judge said. “It may have a chilling effect on future jurors.”

NY Times by John Eligon
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