National News

Bill Cosby trial: What it's like to be on a sequestered jury

Posted June 8

Amid tense cross-examination on Tuesday of Andrea Constand, the woman who testified that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her, Judge Steven O'Neill called for a pause to the questions and spoke quietly to a courtroom aide.

He had a good reason for the break, he explained to the courtroom: He needed to order dinner for the sequestered jury.

"This is new territory," O'Neill said. "I have to be trial judge and also activity planner here."

So it goes at the Montgomery County courthouse outside Philadelphia, where jurors are being sequestered for Bill Cosby's assault trial. The jurors, chosen from Allegheny County, home of Pittsburgh, were bused in to the area and are staying in hotel rooms away from their families for what is expected to be a two-week trial.

By design, a sequestered jury has only limited access to the outside world. So while making crucial decisions on evidence and arguments, O'Neill also has to plan the jury's day-to-day lives.

This setup has not always gone smoothly. After returning from an afternoon break on the first day of the trial, O'Neill apologized to jurors for what he called a "snack snafu."

"We don't have the Department of Sequestration," he said, acknowledging some food-related issue in the juror break room. "We need to do a better job."

Why have a sequestered jury?

Jurors in all trials are expected to avoid talking about the case with others and to avoid consuming media coverage of it. But in major high-profile cases with extensive media coverage, that can prove impossible, Villanova law professor Michelle Madden Dempsey said.

"The thing that's different with such a high-profile media case, the jurors will be inundated with (media attention)," she said. "Even if they're doing their very best to avoid any kind of engagement with media coverage ... it's going to be impossible for them to do that given the high-profile nature of this case."

Bill Cosby's assault trial certainly fits those parameters, as dozens of reporters from across the world have arrived in Norristown, Pennsylvania, to observe the 79-year-old comedian. Cosby has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Sequestered juries have been used in many of the biggest trials of the last decade, including for Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman. The jury in OJ Simpson's trial was sequestered for 265 days, the longest such case in American history.

However, sequestering a jury can sometimes hurt jurors rather than protect them, said Barry Coburn, a criminal defense attorney who worked as part of a partially sequestered jury trial.

"It tends to wear on people. There's a certain novelty about it at the beginning," he said. "But after a certain amount of time away from home and family, it often becomes really hard for most people to tolerate."

Trials are emotional and stressful, and sequestered jurors can't relieve that stress in their own homes with their friends and loved ones.

Those stresses were infamously evident in Simpson's "trial of the century." Michael Knox, a juror who was removed midway through the trial, wrote a tell-all book about the "oppressive, bizarre and infantilizing life of sequestration, in which no doors can be locked, jurors cannot drink a beer, and, even during conjugal visits, jurors worry about having their conversations monitored," The New York Times wrote.

Cosby's trial is far shorter, of course, and could be over in another week. In addition, O'Neill's concern for the jury shows he is sensitive to the types of issues, Coburn said.

Indeed, in planning when to end Thursday's court session, O'Neill catered to the rooting interests of the Pittsburgh-based jury, whose hockey team is playing in the NHL Finals.

"I only had one question," O'Neill said. "What time does the puck drop?"

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