Senser trial: Scrutiny felt in jury rooms

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES and ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 3, 2012 - 3:36 PM

The Senser jury deliberated for 13 hours and reconvenes Thursday. Some experts say the notoriety of a case can draw it out.

Across the Twin Cities and beyond, the curious continue waiting for a verdict in the Amy Senser trial, as jury deliberations stretch well beyond the average for similar cases.

Legal experts say such long deliberations often simply reflect that a case is complicated.

But there's also evidence, say some experts on jury behavior, of a direct correlation between a case's notoriety and long deliberations.

"It's a little more common in high-profile cases for a jury to take longer because they know everyone is watching," said William Mitchell law Prof. Ted Sampsell-Jones. "They're going to know they're under a lot of scrutiny. In a high-profile case, everyone is more careful."

Jurors in the Senser trial, one of the most closely watched in recent years, retired for the night at 7 p.m. Wednesday after deliberating a total of 13 hours. They were set to resume Thursday morning.

The National Center for State Courts studied more than 11,000 felony trials nationwide and found that the average length of jury deliberations in high-profile trials was 7.1 hours, compared with four hours in routine trials.

"We find statistical evidence that trial notoriety continues to increase the length of deliberations for all case types other than capital felony trials," wrote Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies.

Experts differed on whether a plodding jury is better for the prosecution or defense.

"I typically view a long deliberation as favorable to the defendant," said Hamline University law Prof. Joseph Daly.

However, Joseph Tamburino, a defense attorney for 23 years, disagreed.

"The longer [jurors] take, like days, the better for the prosecutor," Tamburino said. "People only work on something for days when they're trying to convict on something."

Tamburino, who observed much of Senser's trial, said he can see why jurors have a hard row to hoe.

"Negligence is an amorphous thing," he said. "Whether somebody knew they hit a person and whether they used the correct standard of care in driving, these are hard things to determine."

Uttering the 'H-word'

Of course, at some point long jury deliberations can turn into hung juries, but most experts said it's a little early to utter the "H-word."

"If they don't come back by Friday, there might be a problem," said veteran St. Paul defense attorney Earl Gray.

"It's a complicated case and a complicated law," Gray said of the jury's challenges in determining if Amy Senser knew she hit a person on the Riverside Avenue exit off I-94 before driving away.

"I'm sure there are jurors who are diametrically opposed to one another."

Judge would urge jury on

What happens if they can't reach unanimous verdicts?

Daly said it would go like this:

"The judge will call them into the courtroom. He will tell them that all parties have spent much time, effort and cost on this trial. He will ask them to go back in and try as hard as they can to reach a verdict."

Gray said that in some jurisdictions and eras, such an effort by a judge to blast a jury out of its impasse has had a colorful name: "dynamite charge."

"Usually, when a jury says it's hopelessly deadlocked, the judge will say 'no' the first time," Gray said. "But then, if they come back a second time, he'll probably discharge them."

Daly said that in that event, Judge Daniel Mabley would be forced to declare a mistrial. But that wouldn't mean Amy Senser would be out of the criminal-court woods.

"The 'double jeopardy' clause of the Constitution does not apply in a mistrial," Daly said. "So it is up to the prosecution to decide if it wants to retry the case."

Staff writer Jane Friedmann contributed to this report. • 612-269-0504 • 612-673-4921

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