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In Pulaski County, juries are trusted

And if Nancy Grace drops in, John Hall is ready for her.

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Sequestration of juries is not common in Central Arkansas. The last sequestered jury, according to Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, was in the celebrated trial of Mary Lee Orsini in the murder of Alice McArthur in 1982, nearly 30 years ago. (Piazza was a deputy prosecutor at the time.) Neither Larry Jegley, the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney for 20 years, nor John Wesley Hall, a criminal-defense lawyer in Little Rock for 30 years, could remember any other cases in which the jury was sequestered.

The issue is raised from time to time in cases that are highly publicized, but local judges are inclined to turn down requests that jurors be isolated. Jegley said that a defense attorney in the recent case of Abdulhakim Muhammad "asked for some sequestration in pretrial proceedings," but Circuit Judge Herb Wright declined to grant it. Just before trial was to begin, Muhammad pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He shot Army Pvt. William Andrew Long at a Little Rock recruiting center.

In 2009, defense attorneys in the Curtis Vance case asked for jury sequestration, Jegley said, but Judge Piazza said no. Vance was convicted of the rape and fatal beating of Anne Pressly, a Little Rock television anchorwoman. He was sentenced to life without parole.

The issue of jury sequestration has drawn considerable attention lately, mainly because of Nancy Grace, the fiery TV commentator and former prosecutor who zeroes in on sensational cases, always from the prosecution side. Her commentary on the Casey Anthony case in Florida, both before and after Anthony was acquitted, shocked some. (The Anthony jury was sequestered, so it presumably didn't know what Grace was saying. Many of the people who did know what she was saying were amazed by the verdict of acquittal.) Since the Anthony trial, a lawyer for Conrad Murray, the doctor charged in California with causing the death of Michael Jackson, has asked that the jury in Murray's upcoming trial be sequestered, specifically so that jurors would not be exposed to Grace's comments. The judge denied the request.

Jegley said that in Pulaski County, judges seem to believe that jurors will heed the admonitions not to watch television about the case, or read newspapers about it, or discuss it, and that they will then reach a proper verdict. "I tend to think it happens that way too," he said.

Hall said that from a defense attorney's standpoint, "I don't want to select a jury that knows it will be sequestered because that would significantly skew answers from jurors who might otherwise be good and fair jurors but don't want to be sequestered and away from work or home for weeks on end. I've had two trials that lasted over two months, and neither was sequestered. One was on TV news every night on three channels."

"Except in the most extraordinary case, we have to rely on the ability of a jury to follow the instructions," Hall said. Nancy Grace's involvement makes for extraordinary cases. Hall said that if he ever had a case that Grace was interested in, he would ask the judge for a special instruction directed at her, telling jurors "not to watch her because she makes no pretext of being fair or accurately reporting facts. Even the newspaper would be closer to the truth than her, but nobody will know more about this case than the 12 of you because a verdict has to be based on what you hear in this courtroom, and not the imaginings of a shrill, unethical (ex-) prosecutor who hates anybody accused of a crime and wants everybody accused of a crime convicted, no matter that they are always protected by the presumption of innocence. If you were on trial for your freedom, you sure wouldn't want a jury tainted by her misguided and often erroneous screeching. ... Convictions are based on facts, not articles of faith by demented TV commentators."

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