The sequestration question

Betsy settled comfortably into her juror chair and listened to the prosecutor drone on. Some of the other jurors looked unhappy when they learned that this case would last at least two weeks, but not Betsy. She was looking forward to being sequestered. Free nights at a hotel, free meals, an excuse to spend a couple of weeks away from her obnoxious roommates—that sounded like a paid vacation to her. This was going to be fun.

Poor Betsy is in for some bitter disappointment.

To sequester a jury means to isolate jurors during the course of  trial. The purpose of sequestration is to insulate jurors from exposure to outside information about the case. It can happen when a case is receiving a lot of media attention, and when the judge (and attorneys) want to make sure jurors don’t hear anything except what’s presented in court and don’t discuss it with anyone else.

Sequestered jurors spend their days in the courtroom and their nights in a hotel. They’re permitted to speak only with each other and selected court personnel. They’re denied access to TV, the Internet, and other media. They may be allowed a phone call home—or visitors, if the case is long—but court personnel will supervise and monitor. They might also be allowed some entertainment, such as outings or carefully screened movies, but the jurors will be watched every minute.

As you might guess, sequestration can quickly become unpleasant. How long is Betsy going to be happy without her smartphone? No Netflix. No hanging out with friends. No private time with family. No sex! While this might be fine for a night or two, cases can drag on. The jurors in O.J. Simpson’s case were sequestered for 265 days!

The truth is that juries are very rarely sequestered. This is partly due to the extreme inconvenience to the jurors. Those who face isolation for long periods may drop out of the case, which would require the use of alternate jurors and could endanger the case. It’s also expensive. The government ends up paying for all the costs—room, board, and entertainment for jurors, as well as salaries for the court personnel (usually cops) who supervise them.

Forcing a group of people into such close and exclusive association is also problematic. Jurors may become such close friends that it’s difficult for them to deliberate independently regarding the defendant’s guilt. Jurors may even fall in love, which makes for a lovely plot bunny but endangers the integrity of the trial.

In the vast majority of cases that last more than one day, jurors are simply sent home with the warning not to talk about the case with anyone and not to read or watch anything about the trial. There’s no way of knowing how well they listen.

As for Betsy, she’s going to be disappointed either way. Most likely, she’s going home to her roommates tonight. In the event she is sequestered, she’s probably not going to enjoy it much.

You can read more about sequestration here.




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