by Laurie Kuslansky, Ph.D.
Although pop culture cases that capture the nation’s attention are hardly typical of trials today, many viewers believe they are and they tend to set unrealistic expectations for those who may be called for jury duty or to serve on a jury. They may expect more experts, more drama, and more interest than the reality at most trials. This underscores the need for clear presentations, litigation graphics, and experts who are aware of the added burden publicized trials may place on them.
There are various high-profile cases in the public’s awareness. One such current case is the Jodi Arias case in Phoenix, in which a young woman was just convicted of the murder of her ex-boyfriend and found to be eligible for the death penalty.
Why is there so much interest in such cases? Why the national obsession? There are several reasons. Here are some of them.
1. Because we expect evil to really look evil
2. They strike fear in our hearts and often have an odd fascination, since – but for the outcome – the situation was so normal.
As in the Arias case: Man meets woman. Man dates woman. Man and woman have sex. Woman becomes possessive and jealous, so man wants out, but likes the sex. Man and woman break up, make up, break up, but still have sex. Woman becomes a booty call until man reaches breaking point and wants out for good. If every man who had a booty call were slaughtered for it not being true love, how many would be left?
What should have happened next? Nothing. They go their separate ways.
What happened here, however, was a train off the tracks: Woman stalked man, repeatedly slashed his tires, hacked his Facebook, hacked his emails, checked his messages, spied on him from outside his home hiding in the bushes, sneaked into his home and stayed there, slept under his Christmas tree, recorded their phone calls, stole an engagement ring from his home, sent threatening emails to him and his ex-girlfriend, had sex with him, then, when her last-ditch effort to manipulate him back through sex didn’t work anymore, she slaughtered him.
This case raises questions that could affect almost anyone because it is terrifying to the core to know that someone who appears normal could be so crazy and violent. The same held true in the cases of the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson.
3. Often, we believe the tragic outcome could and should have been prevented, but it wasn’t.
The only way this tragedy could have happened was for every red flag to be ignored and unheeded, and it was. It is unfathomable that such extreme events went unchecked, and it is hard to believe that it could only have been stopped with the benefit of hindsight:
Jodi’s parents observed extreme and abnormal behaviors first-hand for years (extreme, unexplained mood swings, hitting her mother, moving out as a minor, claiming things that never happened), so they felt they needed to get her psychological help – but they didn’t.
They got multiple calls in the middle of the night from her friends urging them to get her psychological help because she was acting abnormally – but they didn’t.
Her father assumed she had bipolar disorder and told her to get help – but she didn’t.
Friends of Travis Alexander, the murdered man, were alarmed that Jodi was stalking him. Her eyes were creepy. She was distant. Her soul was empty. She was eavesdropping. He made excuses for her. He was emotionally blackmailed that she’d kill herself if he left her. They warned him that she was trouble and to get out – but he didn’t.
4. We are often dumbfounded by the conviction, frequency and speed with which someone can lie and with the narcissism that they exhibit.
Jodi’s behavior defies our wildest expectations of human behavior. It does not fit with anything in our own normal experience, conscience, or imagination. Simply put, how and how much she lied is unbelievable itself.
Instead of showing remorse, she reveled in herself and enjoyed all the attention, utterly detached from reality. She was often cocky and pleased with herself, with an answer for everything. She sought media attention before trial. When asked to explain why she smiled for her mug shot, she replied, “There`s no reason to be upset over this in my mind. Everything -- I have faith and in the end everything will be made known, everything will come out and in the meantime, smile and say ‘cheese.’ ”
She wrote a manifesto, sold sketches from the courtroom, tweeted during trial through others, planned to be free and famous, sniped on the stand and displayed delight with herself when sparring on cross examination, always couched herself as the victim or hero, gave an interview within an hour of being convicted, but apologized to no one and shed tears for no one but herself.
What is the impact of these cases?
It is important to know whether prospective jurors have viewed them, how consistently, and what impressions they formed from them. If you don’t have many experts in your case, will they think you didn’t make your case? If they ignored a lot of evidence, will they need summary graphics or tutorial graphics to track the evidence better? Do they tend to watch courtroom or police dramas? Do they think that is how it actually works?
In these days of televised courtroom dramas playing out publicly, it is important to know what’s in prospective jurors’ minds when you face them at trial and to do what is needed to satisfy them if they end up on your jury.
Other articles and resources related jury consulting, experts and courtroom presentations on A2L Consulting's site:
- Download: Storytelling for Litigators
- Download: Using Litigation Graphics Persuasively
- An analysis of the expert witnesses in the Jodi Arias Case
- How do we make witness preparation work well
- Learn more: A2L's jury consulting services