Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The jury is out... OF LINE?

Civic duty notwithstanding, plenty of Manitobans do not go gentle into that good courtroom to serve the justice system

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One had to be excused for fear she might go into labour. Another couldn't stop falling asleep in court. And a third simply decided he no longer wanted to show up.

Jurors selected to hear the Mark Stobbe murder trial had Manitoba Justice officials reaching for the Tylenol when the high-profile case got off to a rocky start last month. Fortunately, 14 jurors had been selected to hear the two-month trial -- instead of the usual 12 -- and the case was able to proceed as scheduled without dipping below the mandatory minimum of 10. The remaining jurors are expected to begin their deliberations in the high-profile case as early as next week.

But the complications presented by this particular prosecution follow a pattern that proves regular folks are often less-than-willing to perform their so-called civic duty.

Jamie Krilyik, Manitoba Justice's jury co-ordinator, told the Free Press that getting picked to sit on a jury is sort of like winning the legal lottery. Every year, justice officials are given 30,000 random Manitoba Health numbers of people who live in the city and are older than 18. Typically, only about half of those will be issued summons. And of those, only a couple of hundred are chosen jury duty.

Not everybody ends up celebrating being picked. Worse, some appear to go out of their way to mess with the process.

 

Queen's Bench Justice Glenn Joyal ended up reading the riot act last year to numerous jurors who tried to wriggle out of jury duty in the murder case against Mark Grant, who was accused of killing Winnipeg teen Candace Derksen. It took 56 people to find a panel of 12 unbiased citizens who were willing and able to sit on the case, which lasted more than a month.

"You're basically sabotaging your participation for reasons that aren't entirely sympathetic. That's not acceptable. Frankly, I feel that's a bit of an affront," Joyal told one young potential juror, who simply claimed the case was too long for his liking. Joyal had similarly harsh words for many others who offered up a litany of flimsy excuses.

There's no doubt jury duty can be a chore. For every wide-eyed person excited at the chance to play a role in the justice system, there are countless others who fear the time, stress and lack of monetary reward that often come with it. Jurors get paid only if a trial exceeds two weeks. Even then, it's a paltry $30 a day. Exemptions are given in certain cases where health or financial hardship are proven to be valid concerns.

"Some people think they're too important at work," Krilyik told the Free Press. "They think they're special. We had a guy who said his wine was going to be ready that day and he had to bottle it."

There have been many other examples in Manitoba of jury issues that have wreaked havoc with the legal process. Here are some of the more memorable examples:

 

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Daniel Younger was convicted of murder after kidnapping two-year-old Randy Grisdale from his warm bed and then abandoning him inside an empty van, where he died of hypothermia. Younger's trial was plagued with allegations of juror misconduct.

An elderly female juror was caught launching her own private investigation of the facts and then sharing her findings with other jurors. She admitted to going by the crime scene on her way home from court one day, and checking out certain sightliness and locations. The judge dismissed her from the jury panel and scolded her for her "amateur detective" work, but ruled the trial would proceed with the remaining 11 jurors.

Defence lawyer Martin Glazer's fight for a new trial was rejected. He also claimed a mistrial should have been declared when another juror accidentally saw Younger being escorted to court in shackles and handcuffs. Jurors were not supposed to know Younger was being held in custody without bail.

Finally, a juror admitted to using tinfoil on his hotel room TV to get reception while holed up during deliberations. That sparked concern he may have been exposed to news reports about the case. The jurors insisted he hadn't watched anything other than Xena, Warrior Princess.

 

-- -- --

 

A Winnipeg police officer was set to go on trial for an off-duty road-rage incident when one of the 12 jurors picked to decide his fate stood up to make a bizarre announcement.

"I may have my own feelings. My son was roughed up by police, too," the elderly man told the packed courtroom.

Not surprisingly, he was booted off the jury immediately. Weeks later, the remaining jurors declared they were unable to reach a verdict following several days of fruitless deliberations.

 

-- -- --

 

Darrell Fontaine spent several weeks on trial for an unusual first-degree murder: He deliberately crashed his car into a semi-trailer on a rural Manitoba highway in April 1999, killing a young female passenger. He claimed it was a botched suicide attempt.

Jurors spent days deliberating and sent out notes to the judge revealing they couldn't decide on a unanimous verdict. They claimed 11 of the 12 believed Fontaine was guilty, but one holdout was refusing to budge. With no movement in sight and the prospect of a mistrial hanging in the air, two jurors suddenly announced they were too sick to continue. The judge excused them, and moments later the remaining 10 jurors had a unanimous guilty verdict.

Fontaine's lawyer, Greg Brodsky, was livid. He argued the holdout juror likely got "sick" of fighting with the others and simply quit. Brodsky successfully appealed the decision and won a new trial for his client, who was then convicted of the lesser charge of second-degree murder. However, the new trial was hit with another legal hurdle when one of the 12 selected jurors quit on the first day of the trial, saying she would be fired from her job if she were forced to continue.

 

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Dennis Strongquill was a respected Manitoba RCMP officer who was gunned down on a desolate highway by several armed fugitives on the run from Alberta. The trial of his two alleged killers was later hit by allegations of a tainted verdict after a juror admitted publicly he and others were exposed to newspaper reports about suspect Robert Sand attacking his own lawyer before they began deliberations.

The story surfaced one day after the trial ended, when a juror began discussing the case at a Brandon barbecue with a person who turned out to be a relative of a defence lawyer on the case.

Brodsky, who represented Sand, demanded then justice minister Gord Mackintosh call a full-blown public inquiry into the final days of the trial, which ended with Sand convicted of first-degree murder and co-accused Laurie Bell guilty of manslaughter. He refused, and a subsequent appeal of the verdicts was rejected.

Brodsky was furious that sheriff's officers took the jurors to a Brandon restaurant for lunch once they had been sequestered, parading them by newspaper boxes with front-page headlines such as "Sand attacks own lawyer," which appeared in the Free Press.

Jurors were not in the courtroom at the time of the attack, but were in an adjoining room waiting for Queen's Bench Justice John Menzies to return to court to begin his final charge. The jury was not questioned about what they may have heard for fear of contaminating them.

 

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Candace Derksen's killer was finally brought to justice last year. After Mark Grant was convicted of second-degree murder, Candace's family hosted a backyard barbecue for everyone who had been affected by the memorable case.

Three surprise guests showed up that night last summer to share their personal stories -- all jurors from the case. And while they didn't discuss specifics of their deliberations, which would have been illegal, it's clear they were deeply affected by the ordeal.

The first juror to speak was a young man who told the group he had grown up in Ireland, only to marry a Canadian woman and become a landed immigrant. He discussed being 8,000 kilometres away when Candace was killed in 1984 and knowing absolutely nothing about the case until the trial began. He described being haunted by the chilling facts, overwhelmed at his responsibility and grateful for the opportunity provided by the Derksens to share in this special night.

The second juror was a young woman who had grown up in North Kildonan and was close to Candace's age -- 13 -- at the time she vanished. The woman -- who had been deemed impartial during jury selection and accepted by Crown and defence lawyers -- said she was deeply moved at the strength and courage shown by the Derksens throughout their ordeal.

The third juror, another young woman, fought back tears as she discussed the impact the case had on her. She described how she struggled to get through each day of the trial, her anxiety and depression becoming almost too much to handle.

"After the first day of court, walking to my car, I got in my car, burst into tears, called my husband and said, 'I don't know if I can do this.' Was it going to be like this every day, I thought, with the pictures, all of the witnesses, and having to look at that person in the prisoner's box every day that has committed an unspeakable horrific crime?" the woman told the gathering.

 

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It's clear jurors are often touched by what they are forced to see and hear. Several years ago, a juror passed out while viewing graphic pictures of a dead baby during a manslaughter trial for the victim's mother.

In another case, 12 jurors looked terrified when family members of a native man they'd just convicted of first-degree murder tried to get at them in the jury box, shouting "white bastards!" and other profanities.

Because of cases such as that, Manitoba was the first province to offer post-trial counselling for emotionally distraught jurors who have always been bound by law to suffer in silence. Now, they are screened for post-traumatic stress and offered counselling if needed.

Brodsky, who has argued more murder cases than any lawyer in North America, says it's possible some jurors spend the rest of their lives wondering if they made the right decision, especially in light of several cases of wrongful conviction.

Many never forget the experience.

"As the trial continued... it hit me; here I am worrying if I could get through this trial, and here was the Derksen family who had lived this horrific nightmare for over 26 years. I felt so silly. A thought overwhelmed me: was there another reason that I'm on this jury, other than to bring justice? Could it be to help me within, to learn to deal with my own issues? I guess I would have to wait and see," one of the jurors in the Grant trial told the backyard gathering last summer.

"After the trial was over, I was an emotional wreck. I was so obsessed with reading, listening and watching everything surrounded with the trial, over and over again.

"I just couldn't let it go. Being included and being able to talk with all of you about the trial has definitely helped to bring some closure to this experience. I am absolutely grateful that I was selected and able to help bring justice for your beautiful Candace and for your family."

 

www.mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2012 A6

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