Editor’s note: Larry Seidlin was the presiding judge over the Anna Nicole Smith murder trial. After serving as prosecutor in Broward County, he was elected as Florida’s youngest judge. Now retired, he lectures around the country.
The road or journey for proper justice and reasonable fairness in a high-profile case is fraught with landmines inside and outside the courthouse.
There are challenges and misconceptions in trying high-profile cases involving people like Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson, Casey Anthony, O.J. Simpson, and now Jodi Arias. The greatest challenge in a case of this magnitude is to completely block out any information from the jury concerning Arias that is not presented in the courtroom. This is a monumental task that no opinion or information is brought to the attention of any one juror.
This is tough enough when the jury is sequestered. In the Arias case, it is a miscarriage of justice that the jury is not sequestered. Any error, any scintilla of information would completely pollute or subvert the rights of either the state or defendant.
Recently, it was brought to the court’s attention that Juror No. 5 was poisoned, was so biased and prejudiced, that the juror could not render a fair and impartial verdict and had to be removed from the case.
I believe if a thorough inquiry of the other jurors took place -- the peeling of an onion if you will -- there would be grounds for the judge to declare a mistrial. If the bias and prejudice possessed by some of the jurors is so pervasive, Arias cannot receive a fair trial.
If the court grants a mistrial, the state of Arizona would have to expend millions of additional dollars to retry Arias. Additionally, the public, witnesses, law enforcement and a new jury would have to go through this horror show again -- the vivid, brutal and explicit pictures of Travis Alexander, the crime scene and all Arias’ sexual escapades, fantasies and fog.
Are the above factors the reason why the judge hesitated in granting a mistrial? Is she letting everything take place and putting the burden of sorting out justice on the appellate court? This way, the judge would avoid biting the bullet and making the hard decisions. The appellate court is under no time constraints, so the Arias case could languish for years in the big black hole of the appellate docket.
The numerous legal pundits who were assessing and evaluating the Casey Anthony case were convinced that she would be found guilty of first-degree murder. I, on the other hand, continued to pound the studio desk on HLN and other major media outlets that Anthony would walk based on the evidence submitted to the jurors in the courtroom.
In the Anthony case, extraneous information was being presented to the TV viewers, but not to the jury. If you viewed only what the Anthony jurors were viewing, a reasonable person or juror would conclude that the state failed to prove first-degree murder. I believe that the prosecution was swept away with all the media attention and overcharged Anthony with first-degree murder instead of manslaughter.
It's essential to the administration of justice that the lawyers remain in their cages. You don't want them acting like Tarzan in the jungle, pounding their chest and hoping information gets leaked to the jury in order to prejudice their verdict or using the media attention as an infomercial for their future career. We saw this take place with the prosecutor Juan Martinez in the Arias trial, when he was posing for pictures with the general public.
As a judge in one of the above high-profile cases and someone who has personally observed every minute of the Anthony and Arias trials, I see that these types of trials cause some media outlets to do everything they can to spin a specific result or verdict. Having been in the middle of a storm like that, I know the Arias jury must be protected, guarded and free of this feeding frenzy.
Whatever verdict the jury reaches is not a popularity contest or a political poll. Whatever the jury’s conclusions are, they’re based upon their blood, sweat and tears. This judgment must go to the very essence of their being. It must be truthful, honest and forthright and be based solely upon the evidence presented to them as the trier of fact.
During the Anna Nicole Smith trial, my life was threatened numerous times. There was one particular death threat that stated "your robe will be dripping with blood." One of the supervisors in the sheriff’s department requested that I receive 24-hour protection (but being a guy from the Bronx, the only thing I'm afraid of is a dog coming at me with its teeth). These high-profile cases bring out every nut and demented person who uses them as a platform to potentially harm the players in this theater or utilize social media anonymously with harmful, vicious comments that have no correlation to reality.
The courts of America recognize there is no such thing as perfect justice -- it just needs to be fair and reasonable. Therefore, this jury should have been sequestered from day one.