Jury trials: Separating fact from fiction

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

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.”

Those jurors expect fingerprints, DNA evidence, particulate identification and sometimes a 3-D 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 particularly tough cases.

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 eyewitnesses 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 effect” 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.”


Weeding out facts from TV courtroom fiction

Jude said jurors may also be under the misconception that a judge can intervene in a jury’s verdict. But that only applies to overturning a conviction a judge deems improper. If a jury acquits a defendant, the judge’s hands are tied — as are the county attorney’s and the case can never be tried again.

Saterbak said some of the jurors she speaks to after a trial believe the state can simply try the defendant again, even if the verdict was an acquittal.

“If jurors cannot decide in the jury room, it is best to stick to their side and not budge,” Saterbak said. “The state can always retry a hung jury verdict. That is preferable to an acquittal.”

Another response Saterbak receives from jurors is they tell her she should have practiced with her witness until he or she gave better replies while testifying. Despite the go-getting district attorney on television doing this, the practice of preparing witnesses is not legal in Minnesota.

“Ethically, we can’t do that,” Saterbak said. “And they often don’t tell their story the same way” that they first recalled to law enforcement.

Jurors also voiced concern over Saterbak’s delivery of her closing statements, especially during trials that involve cringe-inducing abuse charges and criminal sexual conduct involving children.

“I get people who say, ‘Why aren’t you angry? Why aren’t you emotional?’” she said.

Unlike “Law and Order” star Jack McCoy, Saterbak can’t pound on the jury box and leave the jurors weeping with her emotional cries for justice. The laws governing prosecutor conduct in Minnesota prohibit her from pulling at the jurors’ heartstrings.

“I can’t appeal to their emotions during closing arguments,” she said. “It has to be unemotional. It has to be very straight-forward. These cases are emotional and I am angry, but I can’t show that in closing.”


Pursuing a case          without the victim’s cooperation

In the event a victim recants his or her statement or refuses to testify, Saterbak said she knows that is frustrating for those in the jury box.

“Sometimes the comment the jurors make is, ‘If the victim doesn’t care, why should we?’” she said. “But we don’t represent the victim. We represent the state of Minnesota. We represent the law. If we feel there is a violation of the law, we have to go forward.”

Krista McFarland of Pearl Crisis Center in Milaca said victims often recant statements or refuse to testify for a variety of reasons. Enough time may have passed between the abusive event and the trial date that the victim may believe the abuser’s promises that it won’t happen again.

“Sometimes there’s pressure from other family members,” McFarland said. “Sometimes there’s self-blame, that it’s somehow her fault. And sometimes there’s financial pressures.”

If a victim relies on the abuser for her or his place of residence or support of children in the relationship, they may be less willing to cooperate with a county attorney who wants a conviction and possibly jail time for the defendant, she said.

McFarland is grateful for the efforts of Saterbak and others and the county attorney’s office who proceed with cases, even when the victim is not on board.

“We appreciate Melissa at Pearl. Her job is challenging to say the least,” McFarland said. “The most important reason to pursue these cases is there’s a possibility that the victim may change her mind. If we’re not going to do it, who is? I know it has to be frustrating.”


If she doesn’t care, why should we?

McFarland said it’s important for society and especially jurors to remember, in most cases of domestic violence, there is more than one victim.

“We need to stop the cycle,” she said. “Who is going to help these children? There hasn’t been too many children that I’ve worked with that don’t know about the abuse. It’s naive to say that the children aren’t affected. [Experts] are not seeing children as just secondary victims anymore — they’re primary victims.”

Another frustration Saterbak mentioned was her inability to tell jurors of any past incidents when law enforcement was called to the home on domestic issues. Sometimes, even convictions for domestic assault are not admissible in a current trial.

“If it’s a repeat, repeat, repeat offender, what’s missing? Where’s the accountability?” McFarland asked. “There’s that saying that it takes a village — if we don’t consider, or at least put ourselves in their shoes — to understand why they may be recanting their statement, that’s our responsibility. If we don’t care, who will?”

She said prosecuting cases like these is important for another reason.

“If we’re not going to hold that person accountable, it could be your daughter, or your niece,” McFarland said. “Your circle is not going to be protected. If they’re not held accountable, it’s going to continue.”