All trials, even federal, are supposed to be open to the public. So when US District Court Judge George O’Toole closed the jury voir dire — the process of selecting 18 jurors — to both the press and the public this week, no one was happy. His reasons were unclear, something about a frequency of bench conferences and a fear that the press might overhear. At any rate, the media was shipped off to nearby courtrooms, lashed to an amateurish video feed with a camera supplied by Toys "R" Us, operated by a court employee who couldn’t figure out how to keep both audio and video running at the same time.
Still, listening to the potential jurors was riveting. There was the young advertising account executive who bragged that no one his age has ever handled such important accounts and he’d lose them if seated on the jury. He’s the same guy who said his friends told him it would be “cool to sentence someone to death.” He said he could do it “but not because of them.” Almost everyone said the length of the trial would be a hardship, that is save for one guy who said he spends his days “watching Fox News and afternoons listening to Howie Carr.”
The configuration of the voir dire was in itself interesting. It was a huge conference table with the defense, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on one side, and the prosecution on the other. Potential jurors sat at the end of the table, about 15 feet from Tsarnaev with the judge sitting right next to them. The Judge asked all the questions and frankly, he is not a polished interviewer. His questions were bumbling, convoluted, inconsistent and often interspersed with legalese prompting several jurors to say they didn’t understand the question. The first four jurors sat in place for 20 minutes and were grilled about many of their answers to the 28-page questionnaire they filled out last week. But once it became clear there was no way they were going to hear from the 40 jurors summoned that day – the judge speeded things up, giving the last few 8 or 9 jurors about a minute each.
Several jurors had attitude and plenty of it. When Judge O’Toole asked one what he meant when he said he knew nothing about the Muslim religion and “didn’t care to know” the juror said simply. “I don’t care about anyone’s religion but mine and don’t put yours in my face.” Then there was the Fulbright scholar who interrupted the judge to say “Listen, the only real question here is about the death penalty.”
The other thing that became perfectly clear, finding a totally impartial jury maybe harder than the judge and the prosecution have led everyone to believe. Almost everyone had some tangential association with the marathon bombings of 2013. Some were forced to shelter in place, one man’s wife treated trauma victims at MGH, one man worked for marathon sponsor John Hancock, one had ties to MIT officer Sean Collier who was shot and killed that day. Further, virtually everyone had made up their minds about guilt or innocence – make that guilt.