It’s great politics for New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to serve on a jury. But the symbolic benefits he seeks to reap for his own ambitions come with real costs to the integrity of the judicial process – and might backfire on him if things go to an extreme conclusion.
This week, Landrieu found himself in the jury pool, and then was accepted by parties to the trial of accused murdered Gerald Nickles. He perceives the experience as beneficial to his quest to gain insight into ways to lower the nation’s homicide rate of any major city over the past few years by examining this microcosm of the larger environment (Landrieu is a lawyer by trade but did not practice criminal law).
Yet his service, which he no doubt hopes generates an aura that he doesn’t see himself as too important to try to avoid an important civic duty and that’s he’s an ordinary, concerned, and dutiful citizen like voters fancy themselves to be, appears problematic on a practical level for a few reasons.
The least of these would be wondering who’s running the city while he’s listening to testimony for hours a day for several days; rest assured, New Orleans has plenty of deputy mayors to keep things going, such as they are.
More of an issue is how his presence will alter the outcome of the trial. There’s no report that he’s the jury’s foreman, but just his presence may cause one or more jurors to defer unusually to his views in deliberation, given the naturally-assumed authority they will ascribe to him.
Even more intriguing, it’s an oddity that he got selected without objection by the city or defense. About the last person lawyers like to see on the juries in a case like this, especially the defense, are educated people, in particular other lawyers. But there he is, possibly because …
… if it all goes wrong for the defense, Nickles’ lawyer might ask for a mistrial, stating Landrieu was a hopelessly biased juror because of his political desire to be seen as doing something about the murder rate, and one way to do that would be through a conviction. Or, she could argue that since the public safety forces are lead by him as mayor, he naturally is prejudiced against her client by their story. As such, her move to allow him on the jury might be a stroke of genius as an insurance policy if a guilty verdict gets rendered. She already has questioned the role of publicity surrounding his service on the trial.
However, let’s say the jury reaches that verdict and there’s no complaint from the defense about Landrieu or the judge dismisses such a complaint. Then Landrieu might find himself in a political minefield because the jury would have to decide whether to impose a capital sentence (I am assuming from that facts reported, although the charge itself has not yet been, that Nickels stands accused of first-degree murder.) Apparently, Landrieu expressed no definite opinion either way in pre-selection questioning or else one side or the other would have made a preemptory challenge on his service. Votes of juries do not have to be made public in terms of what individuals cast, but if the sentencing vote is unanimous one way or the other, that would give fodder to one side of the issue or the other about Landrieu’s views for future political ambitions for statewide office, possibly putting him in a no-win situation politically.
The fact is, Landrieu’s presence likely distorts the process and potentially alters it in unproductive ways. If he really wants to gain insight into New Orleans’ abysmal inability to reduce homicides through the intricacies of a murder trial, he need only attend one and does not have to sit as a juror. Even if driven by civic duty to want to serve, he should have realized that discretion was the better part of valor in this instance. In short, that he chose to do so anyway reflects negatively on his capacity to exercise judgment desirable in an elected official.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 09:55