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'Twas the week before Christmas, and juries were full of Santas


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It was a couple of days before Christmas, and the fact that it was the season of good will was not lost on defense attorney Fred Haddad.

Mr. Haddad was wrapping up a drug-trafficking trial, telling the jurors that they should acquit his client and send him home for the holidays.

The defendant's family sat in the courtroom's front row, weeping.

Outside the courthouse, a Salvation Army trio sang "White VTC Christmas" and "Silent Night" -- after Mr. Haddad slipped them $100 to do so.

"The jury acquitted my client in 15 minutes," said Mr. Haddad, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer. "I love Christmas juries. They don't want to put anybody in jail. They're too full of good cheer and happiness."

While most defense attorneys aren't as crafty as Mr. Haddad was that day in Naples, many lawyers and judges do think Santa Claus occasionally visits criminals in the guise of a Christmas jury.

The circumstances usually have to be right -- a non-violent crime, a sympathetic defendant, a trial that ends at just the right time.

But the notion that jurors tend to be lenient around the holidays is so firmly held around most courthouses that prosecutors often try to postpone their cases into the new year.

Defense lawyer John Contini wishes there were more trials around Christmas.

"Any veteran defense attorney shoots for a Christmas verdict," Mr. Contini said. "All month long, Christians are hearing sermons about forgiveness. When they get in the courtroom, they can relate that to the case and the fact Christ was the ultimate defense attorney, pleading for the forgiveness of our sins."

Homicide prosecutor Brian Cavanagh did not want to take any chances on a death penalty hearing set for last Friday.

Mr. Cavanagh feared that a week before Christmas, the jury would find it difficult to recommend that a killer be sent to the electric chair. He tried to continue the hearing to the end of January.

The judge denied his request. The jury gave the killer life in prison.

"From a prosecutor's standpoint, it's not exactly an ideal time of year to be asking people to impose the ultimate punishment possible," Mr. Cavanagh said. "Juries try to do the right thing, but it's natural for people to be in more of a benevolent mood at Christmas.

"This time of year, a prosecutor wants a Scrooge on the jury rather than a Tiny Tim," Mr. Cavanagh said.

Tiny Tim may well have been in the courtroom the day a Broward County jury brought in a verdict on a drunken-driving case even that to defense attorney Vic Tobin appeared a shoo-in for conviction.

"I couldn't even look at them. Then she [his client] gets off," Mr. Tobin recalled with a laugh. "As the jury foreman passed me, he just said, 'Merry Christmas.' "

Other lawyers share more of a Grinch attitude toward Christmas trials. Fort Lauderdale lawyer Elinor Wilcov says most jurors are like her: frantically finishing their last-minute shopping and wrapping presents.

"I think jurors would be annoyed that they have to sit in a trial when they've got a million other things to be doing," Ms. Wilcov said. "They could get mad at the defendant for taking up their time."

Hilliard Moldof, another Fort Lauderdale lawyer, shares Ms. Wilcov's concern. Mr. Moldof was stung by a Christmas verdict in a St. Louis federal court several years ago.

After deliberating a day and a half in a drug-trafficking case, the jury returned to the courtroom at 3 p.m. Christmas Eve. They told the judge they couldn't reach a verdict, Mr. Moldof recalled.

The judge instructed the jurors to come back the day after Christmas to continue deliberating.

Mr. Moldof figured jurors would still be in a holiday mood when they returned on Dec. 26 and would acquit his client.

"But they marched in and boom," Mr. Moldof said. "They convicted him in a heartbeat and left. I guess they weren't happy about returning to court.

"Bah humbug to Christmas juries," he said.

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