Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Longest Trial

Jury trials can be some of the most interesting work a judge does.  Instead of making the decision myself after hearing the evidence presented, a panel of six to 12 jurors is impaneled to assist in finding the facts and rendering a verdict. 

I was surprised to realize that most jury trials last two days or less.  I had always thought that a matter serious enough to required the assistance of citizen jurors would take longer than that – not as long as the O.J. Simpson trial (televised to the nation for several weeks), but longer than 48 hours!

I have had a few jury trials that lasted more than a week.  The longest trial over which I presided lasted 21 trial days, spread out over 7 weeks to accommodate attorney and witness schedules and the Christmas holidays.  It involved a man who was involved in a car accident and was a paraplegic as the result.  He was suing the car manufacturer, claiming the car was unsafe and that was a cause of his injuries.

Six lawyers were involved in the trial – three for the injured man and three for the car company.  There were expert witnesses, hundreds of exhibits and videotaped testimony that was played for the jury.  Our technology courtroom was put to good use during that trial!  I believe it would have taken two or three more days, at least, to have conducted that trial without the available technology.

It was interesting to see the very different dynamics that developed over the course of the trial.  The attorneys stayed in local hotels or bed and breakfasts.  It was a small town, so they and the parties would run into each other at lunchtime or after the court adjourned.  I had to be very careful to continue to remind the jury about their duty not to talk to anyone about the case and not to do any investigating (like visiting the scene of the accident or going online to research car safety) throughout the trial to be sure there would not be a mistrial.    

After 21 days of testimony and many hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict.  It was only then that we all realized that one of the jurors was on felony probation!  Despite being asked in writing when he was summoned for jury duty and in the questioning under oath during jury selection, he had failed to mention this critical fact.

So, I had to vacate the jury verdict and set the matter on again for trial.  The parties were able to settle the case before the trial date came around, so I did not have a repeat of the longest trial over which I had presided.