In unusual move, state employs jury consultant

In unusual move, state employs jury consultant
Ronald Matlon, a trial consultant and former Towson University professor who helped prosecutors pick a jury, leaves the courthouse in Baltimore after jury selection Tuesday in the theft trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)
The Maryland State Prosecutor enlisted a private consultant to help select the jury that will weigh the theft charges against Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, a potentially costly move that is unusual for prosecutors in criminal cases.

Ronald Matlon, a well-known trial consultant and former Towson University professor, assisted prosecutors in the courtroom during the two-day jury selection process that ended Tuesday, State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said. Rohrbaugh would not disclose Matlon's fees or say how long the consultant has been involved with the case. Matlon declined to talk with reporters this week, saying he was instructed not to say anything publicly.

Though prosecutors have traditionally avoided consultants - commonly used by criminal defense lawyers and in high-stakes civil trials - that attitude is changing, especially for the most visible cases, which can be won or lost based on the composition of the jury, legal experts said.

"I can see why they would want to do it in this kind of case," said David Irwin, a former federal prosecutor. "She's a popular mayor. She's a woman. She's an African-American. There are lots of different factors in the equation."

Consultants can be expensive, charging hourly rates similar to those earned by defense attorneys. And their use can create an impression that the state is trying to stack a jury against a defendant, experts said.

"You want to convict someone fair and square," said Valarie Hans, a Cornell University Law School professor and jury expert. "You don't want people thinking it is because they were able to use a jury consultant who could see in the darkest recesses of someone's mind."

Richard Gabriel, president of Decision Analysis, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm, said growing numbers of prosecutors are turning to such services. After prosecutors "have spent a lot of money" bringing a case to trial, "they want a level of certainty" once courtroom proceedings get under way, he said.

A former federal prosecutor from Montgomery County, Rohrbaugh has not tried many cases before Baltimore juries, and Dixon's is perhaps the most high-profile of his five-year tenure in his current post.

While he has secured five guilty pleas in his nearly four-year investigation of City Hall spending, no jury selection was involved in those cases.

It is unclear how involved Matlon has been in the Dixon case, and whether he will continue as a consultant now that the jury - composed of nine women and three men, a majority of whom are black - has been selected. In court this week, he stood at the bench with the prosecutors, listening intently to the one-on-one interviews with jurors. He leafed through stacks of jury questionnaires with the state's lawyers.

But consultants can do much of their work months before a case goes to court, helping to put on mock trials, designing jury surveys and creating models of an ideal juror.

After a pool of potential jurors completes surveys, consultants analyze the results and in some cases mine data looking for criminal records or scour Facebook and other social networking sites for insights about a jurors' preferences and opinions.

In Baltimore, lawyers receive the name, age, occupation and ZIP code of all possible jurors, enough to start in-depth checks.

Dixon's seven-member defense team does not have a trial consultant in court. Arnold M. Weiner, her lead attorney, declined to say whether the defense is using consultants.

Three defense lawyers on the mayor's team have spent the past two days entering what appears to be data from the jury questionnaires into laptops.

Jury experts noted that there is software available that can serve a function similar to that of a consultant. The programs use information from jury questionnaires to determine who in the pool might be more likely to vote to convict.

Fees for consultants "run the gamut," said Steve Levin, a Baltimore defense attorney.

Some consultants bill about $200 per hour.Maryland's state prosecutor's office - made up of four prosecutors, three investigators and some support staff - has $38,500 available for investigative and general office expenses, according to the state budget.