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Jury consultants face difficult role in bombing trial

April 11, 1997

DENVER (AP) _ On the pages of a John Grisham book, prospective jurors live in a fishbowl.

From the minute they are summoned, the candidates are put under a microscope _ they are followed and photographed, and their relatives and friends are pressured to influence their decision.

But the dirty deeds scripted in ``The Runaway Jury,″ occur rarely, if ever, in real life.

On occasion, consultants say, they may send someone to drive by a prospective juror’s home to check for bumper stickers or political signs posted in the yard in hopes of gaining more insight.

But many others shy away from such tactics.

``Heaven forbid. I did not go to college to get a Ph.D. to do a drive-by on somebody’s house,″ said Lin Lilley, owner of Southwest Trial Consulting Inc. in Albuquerque, N.M.

As in many big trials, jury consultants are playing a pivotal role in the trial of Timothy McVeigh, accused in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children.

Both sides have hired consultants, and all are prohibited from discussing their work by a judge’s gag order.

Seating the jury is a daunting task. The legal teams have to find people who were not shaken by images of bloodied children and bodies being pulled from the rubble and who aren’t opposed to the death penalty.

``Who of us can’t picture the firefighter holding the baby?″ asked Denise DeLaRue, an Atlanta trial consultant. ``To be able to get beyond the raw emotion of the case and look at it factually is almost an impossible task.″

The jury consulting industry grew out of the social unrest in the 1960s and ’70s when attorneys on high-profile cases, such as the Attica prison riot, hired professors of psychology and sociology to help them seat juries, said Ronald Matlon of the American Society of Trial Consultants.

``When it began, it was really doing statistical work for attorneys,″ Matlon said. ``Then it changed to ... in-court observations by a trial consultant to help them select a jury.″

There were about a dozen professional trial consultants in the early 1980s when the society was established. Today, it has about 450 members, but there are countless others who also consult. Most were sole practitioners in the 1980s, but some full-scale businesses have been established in the ’90s, Matlon said.

Most consultants have a background in psychology, sociology or communications, with some legal training. Their salaries range from $50 to $350 an hour.

Trial consulting is a mix of psychology, body language and gut feelings. The goal is to seat jurors who are most favorable to your side, whether you are the prosecution or the defense.

``What I’m looking for are consistencies, how serious people are approaching the task. Not so much arms crossed, leaning forward...(but) changes. Do they do something different when the defense gets up,″ said Joseph Rice, president of Jury Research Institute, a consulting company based in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Typically, consultants are hired prior to trial to conduct research from surveys and to run mock trials, where the client’s case is put before a group of people to ferret out weaknesses.

They also help with preparation of opening and closing arguments and assist in getting witnesses ready.

The amount of research done on prospective jurors is limited; often, attorneys do not get lists of jury candidates until shortly before a trial begins, DeLaRue said.

``Any jury investigation that I’ve been a part of first of all is extremely rare and, secondly, we make every precaution in the world to preserve the integrity of the pool,″ she said.

Larry Pozner, vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said trial consultants help attorneys focus on listening to jurors.

``I think it’s another tool to help pick a fair jury,″ he said. ``If you can get a juror to talk about what’s on their mind, it helps to have a non-lawyer filter what it means.″

However, Denver defense attorney Scott Robinson doesn’t rely on trial consultants.

``I tell jurors I don’t have the foggiest notion of what they’re thinking. I tell them I just want to find out who is biased against my client,″ he said.

In the McVeigh case, the consultants have a much more difficult role than in other high-profile trials because the bombing rattled America’s belief that it was insulated from terrorism, said Elissa Krauss, a senior trial consultant with the National Jury Project, a nationwide consulting service.

``I think it’s complicated much further than Susan Smith or O.J.,″ she said. ``It brings to bear the vulnerability people feel. The Oklahoma bombing touched everyone and made everyone feel, `Oh, My God, it could be me or somebody I know.′ ″

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