They're picking the jury in the case of People of the State of Illinois v. Lord Black of Crossharbour.
Conrad Black (now usually called "former media baron Conrad Black" or "former press mogul Conrad Black" in the papers) is on trial for fraud in Chicago. The trial is being followed closely in Canada, where Black is famous. A Toronto paper called the City News describes him in bullet points that could hardly describe anyone else:
- Former chairman and CEO of newspaper publisher Hollinger International.
- Gave up Canadian citizenship in 2001 to be named Lord Black of Crossharbour in Britain.
- Now lives in Toronto and is working to regain his Canadian citizenship.
- Known for his larger-than-life persona and lavish tastes.
- Has written books on Franklin Roosevelt and Maurice Duplessis.
It's the lavish tastes and that pesky title that make the voir dire worth watching. This is a defendant whose lawyers argued the case should be dismissed because he could not possibly get a fair trial from jurors who do "not reside in more than one residence, employ servants or a chauffeur, enjoy lavish furniture, or host expensive parties." A New York Times reporter listed some of the challenges of the first day of jury selection:
One recurring sticking point was the response of many of the jurors to a question of whether they thought there was anything wrong with individuals being paid “tens of millions of dollars.” “I don’t think that anyone should get that amount of money from any company,” one man said.
“No one just receives that much out of the blue for nothing,” said a woman.
Another man said that when he hears of millions in payments, he concludes: “Yes, they probably stole the money.”
Another woman added: “When I hear tens of millions of dollars, I shudder.”
"Yes, any time someone receives that amount of money, it’s hard to believe everything is on the up and up,” another person wrote [on a pretrial questionnaire]. “Look at Enron and the oil companies — big profits.”
Can I ask whether anyone on the panel has held a British title?
Then there was the peerage, presumably the first one that either side's lawyers had ever had to explore on voir dire. Again the Times:
One male jury candidate said he believed Mr. Black has “something to do with Britain’s royal family.”
A woman wrote in her questionnaire that she thought that someone with a title “may feel that he/she is better than myself — untouchable.”
And just when they must have thought they'd fully explored jurors' resentment of rich royalty, the lawyers hit a vein of antiegalitarianism aimed at Lord Black because he is . . . Canadian. "Another woman in the pool wrote when asked what she thought of Canadians: 'Not much. Socialist country.'"
They're different from you and me
I don't think there's data on what Americans think of moguls who give up Canadian citizenship to accept a British peerage. But there is data suggesting we distrust rich people in general.
In a 1998 Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard Survey called the National Survey of Americans on Values, subjects were given a list of 17 individuals and groups and asked whether each shared "most, some, or hardly any" of their "moral and ethical values." "None" was not offered as an option, but if the subject volunteered "none," the surveyer wrote it down.
When asked the degree to which "rich people" shared their moral and ethical values, only 11% of people felt they shared "most" values. Half said "some," while 25% said "hardly any" and a full 10% volunteered "none." (Poor people did far better, with 27% of people believing they shared "most" values, 55% "some," only 10% "hardly any," and only 3% "none.") Besides rich people, the only other individuals or groups who had "none" responses in double digits were Bill Clinton (this was 1998), Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party, homosexuals (a huge 24% "none"), and groups like the Christian Coalition.
Bias thrives where experience is lacking
I've argued that lawyers would be wise to focus more on experience and less on bias in jury selection. But a voir dire about rich people needs to be about bias. Why?
I suggest it's because most jurors have no experience with rich people. They've seen rich people on TV, but they don't know any; as the gap between rich and poor grows, the rich live differently from the rest of us. A wide-ranging 2005 New York Times inquiry on class in America discussed the ways in which class distinctions have in some ways blurred and in some ways remained clear in recent years. One clear distinction is that rich people live different lives at home:
Family structure, too, differs increasingly along class lines. The educated and affluent are more likely than others to have their children while married. They have fewer children and have them later, when their earning power is high. On average, according to one study, college-educated women have their first child at 30, up from 25 in the early 1970's. The average age among women who have never gone to college has stayed at about 22.
And as we know, your family structure dictates a great deal about where you live, how you spend your time, and the people who come into your life. (Seen much of your single friends since you had kids?) For this and other reasons, most jurors have had little or no authentic interaction with a rich person before your trial.
Bias isn't the grail people think it is, but of course it has a role -- and that role expands quickly when jurors have only stereotypes to go on.
Related and unrelated notes:
1. It looks like there will be Lord Black live blogs at a paper called the Chicagoist and in a blog called The Crime Sheet by visiting Canadian lawyer Steven Skurka. "Everything about jury selection in this case is different from a Canadian trial," he says, and describes some striking aspects of the jurors' responses: "An incredible number had experiences with identity theft in their family," for example.
2. Mary Whisner's terrific Trial Ad Notes blog has been a jury goldmine lately. She notes research on neuroscience and law here, research on juries' ability to make necessary sentencing decisions here, and research from Prof. Vidmar and others on whether there really are "judicial hellholes" here.
(Photo by Jim Searle at http://www.flickr.com/photo_zoom.gne?id=362478600&size=s; license details there.)