Celebrities on juries: any harm?

The media attention surrounding Oprah Winfrey’s presence on a Chicago murder trial jury got me to thinking. I know of plenty of near-misses by celebs on juries, and this is one of the few I know of where they actually stayed. Of course, lots of folks think it’s kind of odd, and maybe bad, and not (for once) because anyone thinks celebrities’ time is more important than the “common man’s.”

As we saw in Oprah’s case, celebrities can draw a lot of attention away from the trial at hand (something the family of Walter Holley, the man whose murder was being prosecuted, probably didn’t appreciate). Oprah reported at one point, I believe, that she had to tell her fellow jurors that deliberations probably wasn’t the best time for autographs. There’s the matter of attention (though by all accounts Oprah took her duty very seriously), and the concern that the other jurors would think less for themselves, and would be more inclined to go with the celebrity, ESPECIALLY one who’s known for her views and ability at talk, like, say, a talk show host.

On the other hand, of course, jury duty IS a civic requirement, and we certainly don’t want to make too many exceptions for certain kinds of people - that’s what lawyers are for. And Oprah, due to her regular job and status, is definitely an unusual case. But what sort of harm, if any, IS there in letting an A-list, or even a B-list, celeb on a jury? How much do you think it affects the final outcome? Do you think they convicted in the trial Oprah served on because of her? To what extent? Did the defense (or the prosecution, for that matter, despite the fact that they won) screw up in not excusing her?

I think its a non-issue. Just because a celeb is called up doesn’t mean they will be chosen to serve. So its really up to the prosecution and the defense to decide if its appropriate, and mostly they dismiss them (rightfully so). So, as long as there is a choice, I’d say let the professionals decide if its appropriate or not on a case by case basis.


I don’t think Oprah’s involvement really mattered. But I was a little concerned when I heard that right after they finished serving, Oprah announced the rest of the jury would appear on her show. She did wait until AFTER they reached a verdict to mention that to them, right? And never hinted at it previously? I’m not saying I know she didn’t, it just strikes me as something that (even unintentionally) could have been a problem.

I, too, was surprised that one side or the other didn’t excuse her. Appearing for jury duty when summoned is a civic responsibility, and Oprah set a good example for the rest of us, but being called to jury duty simply means you participate in the panels from which juries are chosen. Most people do not actually get placed on juries. I am a nobody, and I have been called to jury duty several times without actually getting on a jury. I would think that having any celebrity on the jury would be a disadvantage for one side or the other because of the extra public attention that would be drawn to the case. If the prosecution loses, it either looks like they let a murderer get away with it, or it looks like the prosecutor was trying to hang an innocent person. Not good for your career either way. And the defense doesn’t need to win the case outright, they just need one juror to hold out for acquittal, and I would think it would be hard for one person to hang the jury if the celebrity was in the majority. (Can you imagine being in a closed room with Oprah while she tells you why she thinks you’re an idiot, especially knowing that she’ll probably say the same thing about you on international television?)

Would some lawyers like to speculate on why she wasn’t kicked off the jury by one side or the other?

The prosecution probably thought that she’d be tough but fair, like she is on her show. The defense probably thought that she’d be compassionate, but fair, like she is on her show.

They both took a gamble. The defense lost.

I can’t imagine a case in which I’d want a celebrity on my jury, whether I was one of the attorneys, the defendant, the victim or even a litigant in a civil matter. When dealing with the presence of someone whose persona could give them an inflated influence in the jury room, it’s a crap shoot, because there’s no telling how much baggage the other jurors have with them about that celebrity. To keep with the recent Chicago murder trial, I will openly admit that had I served on that jury with Oprah, my immediate, gut reaction would be to take the opposite position from her on general principle because I can’t stand the woman. Now I’m a logical, thoughtful person and after I got the “Ewww, Oprah, gah” thing out of my system, I’d get over it and start judging the case on its merits. Someone who is less logical or thoughtful might not be able to do that.

That’s something which can easily be controlled against – you simply remove anyone who might carry undue weight in the deliberations from your jury if at all possible. If I had that power in a case, I’d go to every measure possible to do so.

IANAL but I’d love to speculate on this question. As a lawyer, if you crave for your 10 minutes of fame, why wouldn’t you want Oprah on your jury?