Jury trials: Fact vs. fiction

Assistant County Attorney Melissa Saterbak pursues cases in jury trials despite many misconceptions jurors may hold about the process.

Mille Lacs County Times

They expect fingerprints, DNA evidence, particulate identification and sometimes a 3D rendering in holographic images recreating the crime. They want impassioned prosecutors who thump their chests, pound the desk and toss the rule book out the window when trying those tough cases involving particularly slippery scum bags.

But the average jury trial in Mille Lacs County District Court doesn’t resemble those on the multitude of TV crime dramas that have become widely popular during the past two decades.

“We have a lot of jury trials in Mille Lacs County compared to surrounding counties,” said County Attorney Jan Jude. “And these poor jurors — since we have such a small pool — are coming in several times.”

Last year, 48 cases went to jury trials in Mille Lacs County, compared to 38 in Benton and 18 in Morrison.   Jury selection is based on valid driver’s license and motor vehicle registration. Those initially selected for jury duty are placed on-call for a period of two or three months. With so many cases going to jury trial, most selectees have the potential to serve three or four times, and as often as every-other week.

“It’s not easy,” Jude said. “And it’s not all glamorous like they make it appear on TV. We understand that it’s a big job to be a juror. We’re grateful to the jurors who have served.”

Jude said more than half of those trials involved domestic violence or criminal sexual conduct cases. In these cases, where often there are no eye-witnesses and very little, if any, physical evidence, a defense strategy can be to request trial by jury — which is a constitutional right of the defendant. Jurors have a harder time deciding who to believe, the victim or the defendant.

“There is a high number of witnesses who will not show up on subpoena,” Jude said. “So I think a lot of times a jury trial is requested so that we can’t prove our case.”

And the frustrations of what she calls the “CSI affect” are being felt more than ever before by assistant county attorney Melissa Saterbak, who prosecutes all domestic violence and criminal sexual conduct cases in the county.

Saterbak has spoken to jurors after the trial to find out how she failed to prove her case. The responses have highlighted an alarming trend — it’s not Saterbak’s case that presented the problem, but rather it’s the jurors’ expectations and misconceptions that are contributing to the verdict.

“They want to see what they see on television,” Saterbak said. “They want what they call hard evidence. They want fingerprints, DNA, things they think we need.”

But in the most common jury trials in the county — those involving domestic assault and criminal sexual conduct — that evidence is usually not available. Victims may not tell anyone about the abuse for months, even years. And once the attorney’s office becomes involved, victims of domestic violence may often recant their statements or refuse to testify, a fact that frustrates both juror and prosecutor.

“I hear a lot from jurors that we’re wasting taxpayer money,” Saterbak said. “I would love to be able to tell jurors that I would never take a case to jury trial if I didn’t think they were guilty.”

For the full story, see the Thursday, March 1 print edition of the Times.