Illinois Murderer Seeks New Trial Based On The Alleged Conduct Of Defense Counsel . . . In The Peterson Trial

There is an interesting argument raised in a motion for a new trial for convicted murderer, Christopher Vaughn (left). Vaughn was convicted this summer in less than an hour in the killing of his family. Vaughn however is talking about the murder trial of another defendant, Drew Peterson (right). He is arguing that the conduct of the Peterson attorneys was so public and obnoxious that it tainted his own case before the jury.

Public defender George Lenard claims that daily press conferences and alleged grandstanding of Peterson’s lawyers poisoned the well of jurors for all defendants. Lenard insisted their conduct “gave criminal defense attorneys, all of us, a black eye.”

Former Peterson lawyer Joel Brodsky not surprisingly took issue with the claim and responded that “[w]hen you don’t have a good argument, you make a bad one.” He added “I guess if it rains tomorrow, it’s my fault.”

Vaughn is awaiting his sentence for the 2007 slayings of his wife and three children, ages 12, 11 and 8. The family was shot in the family’s SUV on a trip to a Springfield water park. One of his daughters, Abigayle, was shot as she clutched a stuffed animal.

Prosecutors cited Vaughn’s emails discussing his desire for a new life, often citing poet Henry David Thoreau in describing his wish to live in the forest.

Judge Daniel Rozak has agreed to review the broadcast reports and press conferences cited by Vaughn’s counsel and delayed sentencing. Lenard has cited 51 grounds for a new trial, though he began his more than two-hour oral argument with attacks directed at former Peterson co-counsel Joel Brodsky. That is a bit surprising given the low likelihood of success of this particular claim. There are solid arguments for the defense and it undermines those arguments to lead with this type of argument. Ironically, it could be viewed by the court as doing what Brodsky is accused of doing in defense of Peterson by emphasizing the most sensational of the claims.

Some may be inclined to agree with Lenard, particularly in a press conference where Peterson’s defense team seemed to mock the disappearance of Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy. However, that does not make for an obvious criminal appellate issue. Giving “criminal defense attorneys — all of us — a black eye” does not readily translate into depriving a defendant of a fair trial. As a criminal defense attorney, I share the concern over such displaced or transferred anger. However, the court is likely to view this as too speculative a basis for a new trial.

Lenard combines that bad press in Peterson with the extraordinarily short deliberation of the jury to raise the concern: “I don’t know exactly what it is that they were thinking, but 45 minutes and not asking for any exhibits, not wanting to hear any testimony, that’s extremely rare. I’ve never had that situation before and that’s odd.” There is no question that this is a disturbingly short deliberation, but it is also a case that likely caused great anger for many jurors, particularly in the death of these children. There was little need to add Peterson’s counsel to stoke such anger when you have the image of an innocent little girl clutching her stuffed animal while being shot. It is one of the great challenges of criminal defense work to try to get a jury to look past that shock and anger and to focus on the sufficiency of the evidence. It is clear that the jurors found the evident not just sufficient but overwhelming in light of their rapid return of a verdict. After all, it takes 20 minutes to just get situated and organized in such deliberations.

Should the short period of deliberation cause the court to consider a new trial or should judges ask jurors to deliberate longer in returning such fast verdicts? The answer of all courts in the past that I know of has been no. What do you think?

Source: Chicago Tribune and ABA Journal
Kudos: Chicago Chuck

22 thoughts on “Illinois Murderer Seeks New Trial Based On The Alleged Conduct Of Defense Counsel . . . In The Peterson Trial

  1. “Former Peterson lawyer Joel Brodsky not surprisingly took issue with the claim and responded that ‘[w]hen you don’t have a good argument, you make a bad one.'”

    Some people do anyway. Some know better than to start an argument they can’t win.

    I’m inclined to go with precedent here as answer that unless deliberations were ridiculously and suspiciously short, like five or ten minutes, that the length of deliberations is largely irrelevant to the outcome. If valid questions arise, the timing will take care of itself, but if the evidence and reasoning are sufficient? Why penalize juries for being decisive? They are there taking time out from their lives to perform a valuable civic duty. If they do so efficiently, then more power to them.

  2. Not every juror asks to see exhibits. That all 6 or 12 of them voted in the same way at the very beginning of the process tells me that the case was argued well and that the jury was truly making a unanimous decision-no one had to be argued out of a different opinion-they all agreed because of the compelling case that had been presented.

  3. Is there any evidence that these jurors were affected by Drew Peterson’s lawyers … that they even heard their statements?

    Did voir dire questions seek that out, or was it all an afterthought?

  4. Never mind Vaughn’s innocence or guilt, here are obvious questions not yet asked or answered:

    How incompetent does a defense lawyer have to be to allow another trial affect his client’s trial, not to ask for a mistrial because of potential bias?

    How incompetent and/or corrupt does a judge have to be to allow that to happen, regardless of whether the defense lawyer raised the issue of bias?

  5. Requiring a minimum time to deliberate is illogical and arbitrary. For example if the only question subject to debate was whether or not there was one pencil resting on a table why would it be reasonable to tell the jury to debate the issue for five minutes? The same holds true as to how arbitrary it would be to decide for one side or the other.

    The court could create a formula to decide how much time would be required to debate the issue. But if the formula was X + 2N / 3 or n^2 + 4 / x it doesn’t matter which is used because both are artificial constructs. Choosing either formula is a choice of the court and not that of the jury which is given the responsibility to decide.

    Moreover, with a few constraints generally relating to sequestering and application of the law, juries are instructed not to use outside influences such as tv news, opinions of outsiders, etc I believe it would encroach on the perogative of the jury to introduce an outside influence such as a judge’s admonishment of a time requirement into their deliberations.

    I believe it can also be demonstrated that a time constraint can cause a different descision than if there was no time constraint.

    I somewhat wonder if some feel a swift decision of a jury is tantamount to a jury nullification. I would counter if the decision is obvious to the jury a swift decision is expected. Do we place such time constraints on a judge?

  6. “After all, it takes 20 minutes to just get situated and organized in such deliberations.

    Should the short period of deliberation cause the court to consider a new trial or should judges ask jurors to deliberate longer in returning such fast verdicts? The answer of all courts in the past that I know of has been no. What do you think?” (JT)

    At last … a chance to seriously discuss something about Jury duty and deliberations and the strong sense I have that arriving at a quick verdict is just plain wrong.

    Now I only have 1 experience but it has stuck with me for years.

    We went into the jury room to begin deliberations. It took about a half an hour to get settled and elect a Foreman. It was suggested by someone that we take a straw voice vote to see where we stood. The Foreman agreed. I objected and stated that, in my opinion, any vote should be paper and that I didn’t think we should start with a vote. I won the paper but lost taking an initial vote.

    Sure enough only 1 vote was for guilty and the rest were not guilty. Well, well … guess it had to be “deliberated”.

    Three and one-half days later, after a thorough discussion, several disagreements, 3 trips to the judge for clarification, a complete review of the evidence and several reviews of specifically requested questions and answers … a verdict of guilty was rendered. A complete turn around from the original straw vote and a decision with which each and every juror was comfortable because they had taken the time necessary to study, understand, and deliberate.

    Deliberations are god dam important and it takes time to do the job properly.

  7. Did this guy also argue for mercy as a widower and grieving father? This argument is ridiculous. I guess his next argument is ineffective assistance of counsel because his crazy incompetent lawyer came up with this.

  8. Blouise, Sounds like your experience was almost the opposite scenario of Twelve Angry Men. You were the Fonda character only persuading to convict, not acquit. It fits w/ my impression of you..no BS! What was the charge, and any more details would be interesting to me. Some of the attorneys I worked w/ would call jurors after a verdict to get their take on the trial. Extremely valuable info. I would always seek info on how they viewed my testimony and videotape if it was presented. I would be watching the jurors as they viewed footage I shot and could usually read them, but not always.

  9. MikeS, I know you admire and respect Marvin Miller, as do I. He died today @ the age of 95. I’ll bet most current players know little about him, or Curt Flood.

  10. nick,

    I didn’t know if he was guilty or not … I hadn’t made up my mind one way or the other. What I did not like was the general atmosphere in the room which was, no discussion necessary

    They were operating on emotion because, if the truth be told, the defense atty was very, very good.

    As I said, I had no idea if the guy was guilty or not but there was no way I was going to walk out of that room without some actual deliberation.

    I think one of the worst things a jury can do is take a straw vote immediately … you know, just to see where we stand. Bad business.

    The actual deliberations were intense … extremely so. The final holdout, a man, did some real soul searching and it was agonizing to watch. After we delivered our verdict I figured we’d be free to go but the Judge kept us in the Jury Room and stayed with us the entire time while the Court Room, Halls, parking lots etc. were “cleared”. We were his Jury and it was his job to protect us. We were there for 3 additional hours and when we finally walked out, all our cars were parked right by the doors.

    During that 3 hour time the Judge talked to us and when the man who had gone through all the agonizing found out that what he had been most concerned about was not even real … a legal contrivance if you will … I thought somebody was going to have to protect the defense atty from him.

    One thing I did learn, if one is looking for truth in a Court Room, it’s going to be damed difficult to find … but it’s there.

  11. This is crazy…. But if you do appeals…. This makes perfect sense….crazily as it sounds….. If you can’t win on the Merits appeal to the human emotion…..

  12. “Giving “criminal defense attorneys — all of us — a black eye” does not readily translate into depriving a defendant of a fair trial.”

    This is it in a nutshell. Without evidence (NOT speculation) that the conduct of the defense attorneys in the Peterson case prejudiced the jurors in the Vaughn case, then this argument goes no where and simply relies on the assumption that jurors were in fact prejudiced when the legal presumption is that jurors are qualified unless and until there’s evidence they’re not. Voir dire is where the Vaughn attorney should have questioned the potential jurors about the attitudes and beliefs, including attitudes towards defense attorneys generally and reaction to the Peterson defense attorneys in particular.

    The other point is that there’s no good limit to this argument. What’s the geographic limit? Does it only apply to cases in Chicago? Wherever the Peterson defense attorneys’ actions were broadcast? That might include the entire USA. Also, what’s the temporal limit? Cases tried within a week of the Peterson defense attorneys’ actions? A month? A year? When and where does this presumed prejudice end? The lack of any principled limitation shows the wisdom of presuming the jurors are qualified and putting the burden on defense counsel to show prejudicial attitudes or beliefs through questioning during voir dire.

  13. Bring the Mother F*****er to my neighborhood and I’ll end the whole thing in a matter of seconds.

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