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VOL. 122 | NO. 44 | Thursday, March 08, 2007

These Days, When in Doubt, Sequester, Say Legal Insiders

By Amy O. Williams

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JURIED EXHIBITION: Clyde Carson, chair of the Shelby County Jury Commission, addresses a room full of about 200 jurors on a recent afternoon. -- Photo By Amy O. Williams

With crime in Memphis rising and the annual number of murders at an all-time high - 160 in 2007 - it's no wonder the number of sequestered juries is rising, too.

Since July 2006, 36 juries have been sequestered in Shelby County, said Clyde Carson, chair of the Shelby County Jury Commission.

"Most sequestered juries are done in a week," Carson said. "Everybody thinks they are longer, but they are typically finished by Friday or before."

The reason juries are sequestered in most cases is to protect the jurors from the outside world, said Judge Chris Craft. Craft presides over Shelby County Criminal Court in Division VIII.

Jurors are paid $30 a day - money that is given to their employers, who are required to pay their employees for a full day's work minus the $30. Since July 2006, Carson's office recorded 501 jurors who sat on sequestered juries.

The Shelby County Sheriff's Office reported in January that sequestered juries had increased to such a degree it was beginning to affect the agency's bottom line.

Juries cost the sheriff's office $231,420 during the 2006 fiscal year, which averages about $1,900 a day for food and lodging, according to the sheriff's office.

And throw away the key

Juries are sequestered in all cases in which the death penalty is sought, according to Tennessee law. And while there are times when juries are sequestered for protection from injury, Craft said it is seldom the case.

"So if I don't want the jury to read about my defendant's 12 prior felony convictions, I better sequester the jury; otherwise he won't get a fair trial."
- Judge Chris Craft
Division VIII of Shelby County Criminal Court

"We more often have to keep our juries away from the media," said Craft, who was appointed judge of Division VIII in 1994 and elected in 1996. "And when they are sequestered, they have no phones or TVs in their hotel rooms. They are not allowed to have cell phones and they're not allowed to talk to their families, and so we keep them away from unfair publicity about the case."

Also, the increased number of local homicides has resulted in more murder trials and the media is reporting more on those cases because of an increase in public interest, Craft said.

But murders are not the only high-profile cases that may require a sequestered jury.

Last month, Craft tried the case of suspected Hacks Cross Creeper Willie Price. Price was sentenced to 60 years in prison in connection with a series of break-ins and rapes that occurred in 2003 in Germantown.

During that trial, Craft sequestered the jury.

"If I hadn't, they would go home every day and watch on TV that this guy had 60 burglaries pending," Craft said. "The jury did not know who he was. They just knew he had this one case. So how could I give him a fair trial if the jury goes home and watches on TV that he has all these other crimes pending?"

Though he said such cases are rare, Craft has had experience with gang trials that required the jury to be protected.

"Obviously, if jurors were threatened we would have to stop the trial and we could never get our cases tried," he said. "Every now and then I have had a case where we sequestered the jury just so we could guard them and protect them."

Change of venue

In 1997, Craft tried the case of Vice Lords gang member Charles "Long Camel" Golden in connection with the assassination of deputy jailer Deadrick A. Taylor.

To this day, Craft is the only person who knows the names of the men and women who were on the jury because the jurors were identified only by their badge numbers, he said. During that trial, Craft and the prosecutor on the case received verbal threats and threats were issued saying the jury bus would be sprayed with gunfire.

"We had two men from the SWAT team with machine guns in the courtroom for that trial to make sure that no gang members interfered," he said.

The main purpose of sequestering a jury is to eliminate any outside influences that might come about as a result of the jurors not being sequestered, said defense attorney Art Quinn of The Bogatin Law Firm.

Quinn works in both civil and criminal cases and said sometimes the decision of whether to request the jury be sequestered can be a tactic used by either the prosecution or the defense to make a veiled statement. In some cases, he said, sequestering a jury could send a message to jurors implying the importance of the case. In other instances, it may appear that the jury is being sequestered because the defendant is dangerous.

But in most cases, the jurors are being protected from a seemingly endless supply of information, from the media to family and friends.

Craft cited a recent case in which a woman was stabbed in her apartment during a burglary.

"So if I don't want the jury to read about my defendant's 12 prior felony convictions," he said, "I better sequester the jury; otherwise he won't get a fair trial."

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