When the Jury Is Still Out

Posted on January 27, 2010 by Comments Off

You know you’re a permanent resident of Manhattan when you get called for jury duty and you have no exemption. Last week I had the distinct pleasure of serving as a juror for the Supreme Court of New York City for three days.

Sitting silently in rows with nearly 200 of my fellow New Yorkers, I had plenty of time to think about our judicial system and its purpose. Its mission is to deliver justice; to sort out right from wrong.

Jurors are told that we are the last checkpoint between a society of order versus chaos, and our duty is one of the few demands our government places upon us in trade for our freedom (except taxes and military draft).

It’s challenging to feel the patriotic benefits of administrivia when jurors are constantly being counted, escorted and questioned. Aside from the grumbling, jurors do provide a critical service to the people. One day you might need to call upon the power of the courts and be processed through “the system.”

The opinion of 12 people set the destiny of the defendant. As I heard the details of the criminal indictment being read, I realized how difficult it is to not presume guilt once an accusation is made. The judge then specifically forbade us to research or view ANY form of related media — specifically mentioning social media Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The presumption of guilt reigns in the court of public opinion. Millions of people collectively set the destiny of the accused. During a crisis, like the young man accused of gunpoint robbery in my case, there is massive confusion and a scramble to get the facts straight. The media and citizen journalists jump on breaking stories before we can get grounded in reality.

With wrongdoing crises, it’s a situation of “everything was fine and then it wasn’t.” One could become embroiled in a bevy of white-collar crime situations or heated criminal activity. Whether it’s cooking the books or killing your spouse, the public will render a swift and resounding verdict on the supposed perpetrator.

Communications professionals must take fast action once a criminal story has broken. Your strategic choices are centered around apology, denial or attacking the accuser (the people). Constructing a clear and certain depiction of the facts will be critical.

  • An apology will bring on lesser legal ramifications and remove your client from the spotlight sooner — this should have been O.J. Simpson if he had been rational.
  • With denial, you must make sure that your client is absolutely 100 percent innocent for this strategy to be successful; otherwise, the payback will be tenfold — think how dearly Martha Stewart paid.
  • Attacking the accuser is an invitation for a mud-slinging contest and can make your client seem emotional — remember Enron executives’ profane statements to Wall Street analysts.

While the public jury is still out, stay focused on the facts and controlling the short- and long-term outcomes of reputation. Our courts provide the assumption of innocence, but the media does not.

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