On Thursday, September 8, 2011, I began my coverage of the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray vs. State of California, better known as, Dr. Murray vs. Michael Jackson. I am not covering the trial as an attorney, a legal consultant, nor a trained journalist. I will be at the courthouse on Temple Avenue in downtown LA, as one who has "been there, done that and bought a crap-load of T-Shirts."
For a moment, I felt like I was in the twilight zone. I was present to tackle a job that I felt compelled to do, had never done before, but it felt so right. In that same zone, I was also recognized as Tanya "I don't take the bus" Williams by many Basketball Wives viewers that walked the streets and visited the courthouse. Still, I, "Jayson Williams' wife," was stared at quizzically by television journalist who actually covered our trial 9 years ago. One journalist, the legendary Linda Deutsch, asked, "What are you doing here?" The answer is quite simple, in a complicated sort of way: Having been a very involved family member of a high profile manslaughter trial that lasted far longer than the Casey Anthony's trial and much longer than Dr. Murray's trial in expected to last, I know that every step in the trial process is crucial, especially, the selection of a jury.
I will cover this trial a bit differently than mainstream media. Of course, I will provide the nuts and bolts of the court proceedings, but I will also give my personal perspective of a particular finding, argument, witness statement and Dr. Murray's conduct. That's the legal side of me. Now, the entertainment side of me must report; who was there, what they wore and what dramatic nuances occurred. I plan to give you everything you might not get from other outlets. I wrote prior to the to Casey Anthony's verdict that journalists were missing the small signs from the jurors that might suggest how the defense was fairing -- I was correct. Most journalist missed it!
I learned that trials have a rhythm for the period of time after the opening statement, and prior to the closing arguments. There is a polite dance going on amongst all the parties involved; the judge, the lawyers, the defendant, the jurors and yes, the families. On different days, different people lead, but everyone is dancing. When you sit like I sat on the front row for over three months, you begin to see the subtle changes in the rhythm of some of the jurors. Sometimes that's a good thing and other times, it is a reason for concern. The prosecution wants everyone to dance to it's beat and the defense wants the same thing. So today, "THIS IS IT!" With the start of jury selection, let the dance begin.
Inside the Courtroom
Thursday, September 8, 2011, jury selection began in the aggravated manslaughter trial of Dr. Conrad Murray in downtown Los Angeles, California. No one from the Jackson family attended, which is not unusual due to the nature of the proceeding. It has been stated that the actual jury selection would take three days (LOL! That would be pulling a rabbit out of a hat for sure.). The humorous Judge Pastor told the gathered 160 potential jurors that he expected everyone to have heard about this case unless, "they were living under a rock, or here on a pit stop from Mars." He was correct. When he asked for a show of hands of anyone who had NOT heard of this case; no one raised their hand. He got the same response when he asked for a show of hands from anyone who had never heard of Michael Jackson or Dr. Murray. Judge Pastor told the prospective jurors, who were paying very close attention, that the trial would take approximately 25 court days. Thus, giving a closing argument date of October 25, 2011 (Good luck!).
In high-profile cases the jury selection process is significantly different than the traditional trials, except that the jury pool is still derived from voter registration and DMW data, as is customary. The potential jurors are gathered together and the judge gives them insight as to what they can expect as a juror in a high-profile trial. Judge Pastor told the jurors that the "courtroom is the temple of justice and it symbolized respect for the rules of law." He continued, the jurors, "are the cornerstone of the justice system." He explained sequestration and stated that he "gave them a break" because requiring sequestration would make them feel like prisoners. He conceded, however, that there would be a change in their lifestyles during the trial.
Judge Pastor does not live under a rock, nor is he here on a pit stop from Mars, so he is very aware of the omnipresence and power of social media. Surprisingly, he would not forbid the jurors to Google and search the web for information of interest to them. However, they are not permitted to conduct research on Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson, news related to the trial or trial proceedings. I learned through our trial that jurors DO surf the web about the case. He also noted that they were not to discuss the case with anyone nor amongst themselves. They cannot post or tweet anything about the case. They are not allowed to conduct experiments nor visit the crime scene. Equally important, the judge said that jurors may not negotiate any deals regarding their involvement with the case for 90 days (hold off on the book deal, in other words). Judge Pastor stated that if selected as a juror, everyday they would meet at a secret location, then, they would be transported to the courthouse. They would remain in the courthouse all day, eat lunches in the courthouse and return to their secret location at the day's end. The jovial judge became serious when he stated that any disobedience of his orders could result in a contempt of court charge resulting in jail and/or a fine.
This diverse pool of potential jurors will first answer questions to determine who has hardship claims. Once this has been determined, the remaining potential jurors are required to fill out an extensive, 36 page questionnaire. The questionnaire was created by the prosecution team, as well as, the defense team with a purpose of learning as much about the potential jurors as possible. The questionnaire will ask of a person's opinion regarding celebrity, our judicial system, race relations, medication use, death, police, doctors and a host of other topics. I poured over all 300 of our potential jurors questionnaires. I was surprised to see how honest many jurors were. There were racist jurors who admitted it. There were jurors who thought most athletes were spoiled, pampered and not overly intelligent, and they admitted it. Despite my strong opinion that many people desire to sit on a jury for a high- profile case for personal gain, many more people take their civic duty very seriously.
Day one was a short day for Dr. Conrad Murray. The judge put the court in recess at about 10:30 a.m. and instructed the potential jurors to begin to fill out the preliminary paperwork. Judge Pastor stated that day two would look very similar to day, except a new group of 160 potential jurors would be summoned to the courthouse. In the end, Judge Pastor hopes to get 100 potential jurors to participate in the voir dire process, slated for September 23, 2011.
Outside the Courtroom
About 30 journalists and cameramen, representing CNN, ABC, FOX, CBS, Reuters, and others, waited in the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center courtyard in the very, very hot weather to hear a report from Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press. During this phase of the trial, the Associated Press was awarded the one seat in the courtroom reserved for media. The reporter is required to share what transpired inside with her colleagues via a press conference. In my new role as a polemical journalist, of course I stood "front and center," took notes and asked questions. Yes, I asked questions. In response to the questions posed by others, we learned that Dr. Murray said "good morning" and the potential jurors responded in kind. Thereafter, Dr. Murray sat emotionless and paid close attention to the judge's instructions to the potential jurors. We learned that opening statements are to begin on September 27, 2011.
Based on my personal experiences, I asked if either side retained a jury consultant. Linda answered, "not to her knowledge." We retained the very talented Jo-Ellen Dimitrius. I'm a bit surprised that neither side opted for assistance from an expert in this area, but then again, many lawyers think they are the experts when it comes to picking a jury for "their" case. The other possible reason that an expert was not retained is because a jury consultant is not cheap! Hiring Jo-Ellen was a good move on our part because everyone, attorneys included, learned so much about the passive signs to look for when determining the real psyche of a juror. Jo-Ellen was also very helpful in crafting our outrageously long, detailed, yet necessary questionnaire. Overall, my questions were different than the journalists because I know, very intimately, what's important to the attorneys and Dr. Murray at this juncture of the trial. Their primary focus over the next couple days is to determine what potential jurors will dance to their beat.
On The Streets
When I arrived to the courthouse I saw one supporter for Dr. Murray and one supporter for Michael Jackson. Each was holding a sign of support. First, I spoke with Mr. Willie Hampton, a very close friend Dr. Murray. Mr. Hampton is a retired attorney who met Dr. Murray over 20 years ago in Houston, Texas. Mr. Hampton, who spoke to Dr. Murray the day prior, said that Dr. Murray is "fine." In fact, Dr. Murray encourages Mr. Hampton to stop worrying. According to Mr. Hampton, Dr. Murray is a spiritual man and has been receiving support from family, friends and his spiritual advisor, Dr. Lewis Logan. Mr. Hampton believes that Dr. Murray did not act negligently and should be exonerated because of his character. He stated that "many rich people" have personal doctors come to their homes all of the time. Out of respect for Mr. Hampton, I refrained from asking how many "rich people" have doctors administer propofol in their homes. So instead, I asked Mr. Hampton what he thought caused Michael Jackson's death. He began to speak about Michael's financial woes and the resulting anxiety. He believes this is what caused Michael to have sleepless nights and made him desperate for sleep. Again, I politely stated, attorney to attorney, "assuming arguendo," still, how did Michael die? Dr. Murray's very good friend stated, "either Michael did it to himself or someone else came in and did it." Wow! I had to follow-up and clarify his notion that someone might have snuck into Michael house and murdered him. Mr. Hampton stated, quite passionately, that Michael's house was huge and that someone might have been in there for a long time waiting for the right opportunity to "off him." He suggested that the family also believes that others wanted Michael Jackson dead because of money and insurance issues. WOW! A bit of insight as to what the defense might offer to the jury. I'm just saying -- friends usually have an idea about what's going on behind the scenes.
I then spoke with civil rights activist, Najee Ali. He came to show his support for Michael, as well as, the Jackson family. Mr. Ali met Michael in the past and spoke with Jermaine recently. Mr. Ali recognized me from our trial, offered kind words of support and wanted to write Jayson a letter of encouragement. Mr. Ali has attended many trials as a civil rights activist here on the west coast. In fact, he refers to himself as the Al Sharpton of the west coast. He believes that Dr. Murray's actions were unintentional but grossly negligent. However, he states that Dr. Murray's actions became criminal when he tried to cover-up the evidence and tell the witnesses to lie (why does this botched cover-up scenario sound so familiar to me?). Although he believes that Dr. Murray must be held accountable for his alleged criminal behavior, Mr. Ali doesn't like seeing another African-American man, especially a doctor, being prosecuted.
Lastly, I met two young women and a young man smoking cigarettes on the wall of the courtyard. They told me that they saw Basketball Wives and they wouldn't have gotten in the fight either. I told them that they should stop smoking, to which they paid me no attention at all (smile). I asked them if they were supporters Michael or Dr. Murray. "Neither" they said. One young lady stated that they were present for the start of the trial of a man who murdered her brother. The other young lady stated that "it's a double homicide trial", and her brother was also murdered by the defendant. My stomach dropped to my feet. The murders occurred nine years ago. The defendant has been in jail over the past nine years for a separate crime. Wow -- Nine long years and finally these friends and sisters to the murdered men are in the same courthouse, seeking the same justice as the Michael Jackson family. There were no cameras for them, no press conference, no exhaustive questionnaire for their hundreds of potential jurors, no high-profile anything. Just two women, doing what normal people do everyday; struggle to make ends meet, try to find peace in a chaotic world; pray that our judicial system works and finally, justice will be done.
Of the 187 potential jurors who reported for jury selection in the Murray trial Thursday, 115 were dismissed for hardship reasons, a court spokeswoman said.
The remaining 72 were given questionnaires, about 30 pages long, to complete and were ordered to return to court on September 23rd for the face-to-face voir dire process.
Orientation for a second group of about 140 potential jurors will begin at about 9:20 a.m. PT.
The judge will decide Friday afternoon if enough potential jurors have been qualified for the pool needed to select 18 citizens to hear the month-long trial.