Elaine Pollack says she can sympathize with jurors in the George Huguely V murder trial — she and the 11 others who deliberated the fate of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon in 2009 also labored under the glare of intense media attention.
In the Dixon case, jurors weighed criminal charges against a sitting mayor and complicated testimony during deliberations fractured by a four-day break for Thanksgiving. Instructed not to talk to others about the case, Pollack didn't inform her mother about the jury she was sitting on.
Still, Pollack said being a juror in the Huguely case must be far more daunting, not only because of the weighty murder charges but also because it's a small-town trial being watched by a nationwide audience.
"That's a case I'd never want to be on," said Pollack, 32. "There's a whole other level of emotions at play in that case."
Deliberations are set to begin Wednesday in the high-profile case being tried in Charlottesville, Va., in which the University of Virginia lacrosse player is accused of killing his on-again, off-again girlfriend and fellow student-athlete Yeardley Love, a Cockeysville native. The jury — 12 jurors and two alternates, seven men and seven women — all hail from the tight-knit community, where even more so than the rest of the country trial coverage is nearly impossible to avoid.
And yet that's what the jury is being tasked with doing when they return Wednesday, after the Presidents Day holiday and another day to accommodate the court's schedule. Closing arguments were Saturday. To avoid being swayed by outside opinions or learning details not presented to them during the trial, jurors must abstain from talking about the case with family, friends and each other. They are also forbidden to read news coverage or anything about the case on social media.
Can it be done? David Heilberg, a Charlottesville attorney who has been tracking the case, thinks so, though he notes that "the only thing predictable about any jury is its unpredictability."
"Just eyeballing that jury, they look very smart and very sincere," Heilberg said. "But they took an oath, and you can only hope they follow those instructions."
At the beginning of the trial, Huguely's lawyers expressed concern about the amount of publicity the trial was getting — nearly 200 members of the news media received credentials for the trial — and sought to have the jury sequestered, or isolated, for the duration of the trial to prevent exposure to any publicity that might affect their decision.
Sequestration is rare — and costly — but occurred recently in the trial of Florida mother Casey Anthony, who was acquitted in July of first-degree murder and other charges in connection with the death of her daughter, Caylee. It's considered a drastic step because of the impact on the personal lives of jurors, whose contact with friends and family and access to television, phones and computers can be cut off.
Among the reasons Huguely's attorneys cited were "endless blogging" and concerns that jury members might use Facebook and Twitter to communicate details or view the comments of others.
"We need to protect the sanctity of this process. This is not reality TV, this is court," defense attorney Rhonda Quagliana argued, according to news accounts of a hearing on the request, which was denied.
The concerns raised about media attention underscore a growing problem for courts, especially as access to the Internet has increased and as the universe of bloggers has expanded. Jurors, like everyone else, are not just more plugged in but more knowledgeable about how to quickly seek out information to satisfy their curiosity.
"The trial system is closed, contained by strict rules, discourages initiative and activism by jurors, and is premised on the assumption that jurors will accept the authority of the court to guide them," retired Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who presided over the Dixon trial, wrote last year in a legal journal.
"It should not be surprising that for a digital native, one used to the world of the Internet and social media, that the methods and forms of acquiring information in a trial may seem stifling, inefficient, and unduly restrictive," he wrote.
During the Huguely trial, Charlottesville Circuit Judge Edward Hogshire asked the jurors under oath whether they have viewed media or been influenced by anything outside of the testimony. Even in a media-obsessed culture, jurors said they had shielded themselves from the noise.
Since Love's death in May 2010, media attention has been intense. That made picking a jury that hadn't heard about the case difficult, if not impossible, said Darryl K. Brown, a law professor at the University of Virginia.
"They didn't even try to do that," he said of the judge and lawyers in the case. "A lot of people in the jury pool knew something about the case, and the judge just tried to make sure they weren't so fixed in their preconceived notions that they couldn't give an impartial verdict."
"It's a pretty small town — you couldn't find 12 people that hadn't heard anything about it," Brown said.
Brown said it was an "odd" situation that the jury would hear closing arguments and then take three days off, but he said the delay wouldn't seem to benefit either side. And Brown and Heilberg agree that coverage largely hasn't included any non-courtroom bombshells that would influence jurors, even if they did pay attention to media accounts during the intermission.
Unlike the Huguely trial, where issues of outside influence haven't cropped up, the Dixon trial presented several such problems. Pollack, the juror on the Dixon trial, was among those dubbed the "Facebook Five" — for talking to each other on Facebook — who were summoned back to court after convicting Dixon of a misdemeanor embezzlement charge. The communication became an issue in a failed bid by Dixon's lawyers to declare a mistrial.
"After spending three weeks together, we did become friends on Facebook. We'd say 'Hello,' 'How are you,' 'Happy Thanksgiving,'" she said. "They tried to say we didn't follow the rules."
During the trial, Pollack said, the threat of being sequestered loomed large and she took extra precautions not to put herself in a position to discuss the case with people outside the courtroom. Only her boss knew that she was a juror in the case.
The four-day hiatus over Thanksgiving offered a "great mental break" from the rigors of the Dixon trial, she said.
"When you're in that room for hours and hours on end, it's grueling," she said. "That break is a great refresher for your mind."
Pollack, who said her mother is friends with Love's godmother, said the Huguely case is likely to be discussed widely on social media such as Facebook, particularly among young people, because of underlying issues including drinking and relationships.
Sweeney, in his essay in the Reynolds Courts & Media Law Journal, said judges shouldn't "overreact" if allegations of social media use surface in a trial, and courts generally shouldn't change procedures to respond to the new media landscape. Instead, he believes judges should take greater care to explain the process to jurors and why it is important that they consider only court testimony.
He recalled a juror on the Dixon trial, a 24-year-old man whom Sweeney described as polite and friendly during the proceedings, who afterward posted to Facebook: "[Expletive] the judges and the jury pimpin." Sweeney wrote that he pulled the man aside to ask him what he meant.
"Hey judge, it means nothing," he said. "That's just Facebook."
Baltimore Sun reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.
Huguely trial timeline
Feb. 6: Trial opens with jury selection.
Feb. 8: Opening statements.
Feb. 15: Prosecution wraps up its case after calling about 50 witnesses; defense begins calling witnesses.
Feb. 16-17: Defense attorney falls ill, prompting suspension of trial.
Feb. 18: Jury hears closing arguments.
Feb. 20-21: Presidents Day holiday, unrelated grand jury proceedings make court unavailable.
Feb. 22: Jury expected to begin deliberations.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun