First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON - To the layman, the 10 people picked so far to serve as jurors in the Myron Britt murder trial look like their neighbors.
To a jury expert, the way those seven women and three men dress, their education level, what they do for a living and where they go to church are factors that could determine whether Britt goes free or is put to death - and therefore become critical elements as the defense and prosecutors tussle for whom they want to serve.
Britt is on trial for the shooting death of his wife, Nancy Melton Britt, in August 2003. Ten jurors were selected last week, and five more are needed, which includes three alternates. Those jurors so far are a mix of whites and American Indians, with no blacks selected.
Most people first learned about jury consultants with the O.J. Simpson trial even though they have been around for more than 30 years. Monte Hill, a former political science professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, has worked as a jury consultant for 15 years.
“Jury consultants are often used in high-profile cases … it is how Dr. Phil got started,” Hill said. “But the vast majority of attorneys don’t use them. Most lawyers think they can pick jurors based on their gut feelings, but that is not objective.”
Neither the defense or the prosecution hired jury consultants for the Britt case.
“I don't think they are all that helpful,” said District Attorney Johnson Britt, who will prosecute the case. “The defense used them in the James Jordan murder trial. But their clients were convicted anyway. I guess that says it all.”
But Britt isn't operating blind.
“I don't go in with a particular person in mind,” he said. “What I look for is someone who expresses a strong sense of right and wrong.”
Britt said, because his case is largely circumstantial, he is looking for jurors “who have common sense who can analyze stuff.”
The defense and prosecution can each dismiss up to 14 jurors without offering any cause, which does enable them to shape the jury to that degree. Britt said those dismissals have been used “rather modestly.”
Each side also has an unlimited number of dismissals, but a cause - such as an objection to the death penalty or a prejudice toward guilt or innocence - must be demonstrated for each one.
Hill, who has worked on about 30 murder cases, says jury consulting is more complex than people realize. Experts don’t just read people, he said, but spend hours talking with the defendant, their families and key people in the case.
Hill said he has not followed the Britt case closely so he didn't want to profile the perfect juror for the prosecution or defense. But he did offer a few general guidelines for jury selection.
Hill said the defense team should look for things that would indicate that a juror might vote for life in prison rather that the death penalty.
“For example, people who belong to a mainstream Methodist church are likely to be opposed to the death penalty because of church teachings, even though they say they may be able to consider it,” Hill said. “There are people who don't agree with the church, but show me a Methodist and I will have a special interest in that person.”
Minorities and educators are also less likely to vote for the death penalty, he said.
He said the prosecution may want to look for someone who is well-dressed because studies have shown they are more likely to vote for the death penalty. He said people who work as managers supervising large groups of people are also more likely to convict.
“Both sides may want to look at a prospective juror who wears dark clothing, especially black, because that color reflects power and leadership,” Hill said. “That is why judges and police wear black. That juror may have influence over the other jurors.”
He said jury consultants have to be careful not to let stereotypes muddy the selection process. It should be a starting point to look for other clues.
“There are always exceptions to using factors such as race and education to determine how a juror will vote,” Hill said. “They are just factors along with the color of a juror’s clothing, their behavior while being questioned, whether they make eye contact. Those are the sorts of social science things that can help determine what kind of juror they may be.”
Hill said that the evidence can always be the ultimate trump card.
“You may have the best lawyer and the best consultants and even have what you consider to be the juror that fits your profile,” he said. “You still can’t overcome the facts of the case. You still often win or lose on that.”