Two recent cases highlight how a person’s political affiliation — among other things — can affect what happens in the jury room.
Recently, a jury in Wichita Falls acquitted a man (in 18 minutes, no less) on a charge of transmitting a threatening communication in interstate commerce. Translation? He was found not-guilty of threatening a member of Congress in a social media post.
The defendant, Gavin Weslee Perry, had made posts on Facebook claiming that Nancy Pelosi was “part of a satanic cult” and that she and other “Dems of the establishment will be removed at any cost necessary and yes that means by death.” In another post, he wrote, “If you’re a Dem or a part of the establishment in the Democrats’ side, I view you as a criminal and a terrorist and I advise everyone to Go SOS [shoot on sight] and use live rounds…. Shoot to kill. This is a revolution.”
Tell us how you really feel, Gavin.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Brendan Hunt was found guilty in a similar charge of transmitting a threatening communication over the internet. But Hunt did more than post words: he posted a video calling for the “slaughter” of members of Congress, adding that he’d shoot and kill them himself if he could find a gun. In one post, Hunt called on Donald Trump to hold a public execution of several high-profile members of Congress, saying “If you don’t do it, the citizenry will. We’re not voting in another rigged election. Start up the firing squads, mow down these commies, and let’s take America back.”
In a story in by federal courts reporter Kevin Krause in The Dallas Morning News (subscription required), I opined that politics could very well have played a role in those wildly different decisions — but that, in general, it’s not smart to put all of your stock in political affiliations when picking a jury.
“People have different views on how the world works depending on where they live,” Miller said. “The tone and the tenor of what’s happening in society is important.”
But there are other considerations beyond party identification, Miller said. Did jurors perceive the threat as intending or inciting harm or was it just “some wingnut spouting off and wanting to be heard?”
Miller said it’s unwise to generalize and expect a juror to think a certain way based solely on their political leanings. Maybe a juror had a relative who was harmed in some way due to online threats, she said.
Also, some people don’t use social media or follow politics, Miller said. Another factor in trials, she said, is the “courtroom dynamic,” meaning the attorneys’ delivery and interaction with witnesses.
In the Perry trial, the 18-minute jury deliberation is revealing, Miller said.
“That tells me everyone was unified in their opinion,” she said.
Political affiliations — just like age, education, and race — are one indicator of how a juror might perceive the evidence. But it’s far from the only indicator. Personal life experiences, family history, geography, occupation, and attitudes about free speech and the role of government all play an important role in juror perception. And perception impacts decision-making, both in and out of the jury box.
That’s why jury questionnaires are so important. And — if time and local rules allow — a dive into prospective jurors’ online footprint. We don’t have time to learn everything about a potential juror during voir dire, but we — like juries — need to have an open mind and probe as much as possible about what makes any given member of a jury panel tick.