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How Are Jurors Holding Up 4 Months Into The Miske Trial? Better Than You Might Think, Experts Say

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How Are Jurors Holding Up 4 Months Into The Miske Trial? Better Than You Might Think, Experts Say

May 21, 2024 | 8:19 am ET
By Madeleine Valera/Civil Beat
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Jury consultants and scholars who’ve interviewed dozens of jurors post-trial say they usually report their experience was positive and rewarding. Many jurors in long trials even develop lasting friendships with one another. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)
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Jury consultants and scholars who’ve interviewed dozens of jurors post-trial say they usually report their experience was positive and rewarding. Many jurors in long trials even develop lasting friendships with one another. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

Since the federal racketeering trial of Michael Miske began Jan. 22, a group of 18 jurors has sat day in and day out, listening to hundreds of witnesses, viewing thousands of pages of evidence and diligently taking notes.

They are the most important people in the room, the ones who will decide the fate of a man charged with 19 counts connected to what prosecutors say was his operation of an organized crime ring. Some of the counts, including murder in aid of racketeering and murder-for-hire conspiracy resulting in death, carry mandatory minimum life sentences if he’s convicted. 

About four months into the trial with months still to go, many court observers wonder how the jury is holding up, how they’re able to retain and process so much complex information and how they’ll be able to come to a fair decision when it’s all over. A draft of the jury’s instructions, which is a set of rules to guide them on their deliberations, is 176 pages long. 

Since they’re prohibited from speaking about the case while the trial is ongoing, the jurors’ current thoughts and feelings are unknown, but experts say they’re likely more engaged and less bored than one might imagine. Scholars and jury consultants who’ve interviewed dozens of jurors post-trial say most of them find the experience rewarding and, in lengthy trials especially, often develop lasting friendships with fellow jurors. 

“When they come in a lot of people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to do jury duty,’” said Justin Levinson, a law professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa. “By the time they leave, they might not want to do it again, but many of them come to really understand how wonderful this is for our society and how important it is that we have everybody participating in jury duty.”

The Selection Process

Before the Miske trial began, about 100 people were summoned during six days of jury selection. Forty-four prospective jurors were chosen, and from there the group was whittled down to 12 jurors and six alternates who can fill in if anyone needs to be excused.

Empaneling a jury can be especially challenging in a high-profile case where the defendant is well known and many people have already formed opinions, said George Hunter, a senior consultant with Seattle-based Mind Matters Jury Consulting. Prospective jurors in the ongoing case of Donald Trump, for example, were questioned about their views on the former president. For that case, nearly 300 people went through a four-day jury selection process, according to NPR.

With trials predicted to last months, like Miske’s, the time commitment itself can be a disqualifying factor for many people, Hunter said.

“Most of the jurors simply can’t do it either for personal or financial reasons,” Hunter said.

Jurors in Hawaii earn $50 per day for the first 10 days of service and $60 for each day thereafter. The court also pays travel costs and lodging for jurors from neighbor islands who usually stay on Oahu from Monday through Friday and fly home on weekends.

Those who can serve are often retirees, government employees who continue receiving their salaries while on jury duty and those without family responsibilities or financial hardships, leaving the court with a jury that isn’t very representative of the actual community, Hunter said.

Those who do make it through the scrupulous selection process are usually people who are highly committed to their responsibilities as jurors, said Cynthia Veneciano, a jury consultant with IPP Trial Consulting in Los Angeles. 

“For the most part, jurors take their duty seriously,” she said. “It’s like a juror hat comes down and falls on your head and takes over your personality.”

The Toll Of A Long Trial

In Hawaii, the average juror serves for just two weeks, according to the U.S. District Court. The Miske trial, which is expected to last six to eight months, is significantly longer even than other high-profile cases, including the trial of former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha, which lasted about one month, and that of former Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, which wrapped up last week after two months.

One of the most difficult aspects for many jurors is the rule against speaking about the case with anyone in their lives, including their spouses, family members, friends and even fellow jurors, Hunter said. They’re also prohibited from reading, watching or listening to anything about the case outside of court.

“Jurors when they’re in these extended trials feel often very isolated and uncertain about how anybody else is feeling about the case,” he said. “It really wears jurors down.” 

Retaining information can also be a challenge, especially because evidence usually isn’t presented in narrative form or chronological order, Levinson said. 

“Jurors, as they’re listening to the testimony and as they’re learning, will not just store it and encode it in their brains as they heard it but rather they will store it and reconstruct it as a story to understand who did what and why,” he said. “And then as new information comes to light, they adjust the story to comply with that new information.” 

Particularly emotional testimony, like that of Ashley Wong, the former girlfriend of Johnathan Fraser, whom Miske is accused of conspiring to kidnap and kill, will likely stick more prominently in jurors’ memories than testimony from law enforcement officers or expert witnesses, Levinson said. 

While juries are supposed to evaluate the facts of the case without being swayed by emotion, that can be an impossible ask.

“I think the lawyers know that the jury cannot put aside their humanness,” he said. 

When they do finally get to deliberations, jury instructions are supposed to help them figure out how to examine and weigh the evidence without letting their biases interfere. 

A draft of the jury instructions in the Miske case, for example, tells jurors how to evaluate the credibility of a witness’s testimony. Jurors can consider factors like a witness’s memory, manner while testifying, interest in the outcome of the case, bias or prejudice and whether any other evidence presented contradicts their testimony. Jurors are also instructed to consider with greater caution the testimony of witnesses who have pleaded guilty to crimes related to the case. Testimony by law enforcement officers, the instructions say, is not to be given any more weight or credibility than other witness testimony. 

While the law assumes jurors will be able to internalize and follow these instructions, that may not always be the case, Levinson said.

“The reality is that jurors will do their best to understand those things but most jurors are not lawyers and understanding hundreds of pages of jury instructions and making deep meaning around those is not something that happens on the level that courts or the law pretends,” he said.

Civic Duty

Mark Bennett, a retired federal judge for the Northern District of Iowa who conducted implicit bias training around the country including in Hawaii, said most people who’ve never served on a jury would be surprised to know how much most jurors enjoy the experience.

“The most frequent question I got asked when I would go down and debrief the jurors after the trial was, ‘When can I come back and serve again?’” Bennett said.

Factors such as the oath taken upon being sworn in, the grandeur of a federal courtroom and the way everyone, including the judge, is asked to rise when the jury enters contribute to the sense of importance jurors feel about their duty, he said.

Gregory Khan, 71, of Molokai, said he loved serving on juries, once in California and once in Maui County about 10 years ago. 

He said he feels so passionately about jury service that he was frustrated when he was summoned again last year but wasn’t able to get a flight to Maui early enough on the Monday morning he was supposed to appear in court.

“The whole idea of jury service is that it’s egalitarian and it’s a jury of your peers, and people on Molokai are excluded from following through with their civic duty,” he said. 

For Khan, juries represent an essential foundation of American democracy. 

Many jurors echo that sentiment, Bennett said. And while he also can’t know what the Miske jurors are thinking and feeling, he said he imagines they appreciate the magnitude of the duty before them.

“I would think that, even though it’s a long trial, they’re very engaged,” he said. “And I think if somebody could interview them at the end, they would say that was long, it was difficult, sometimes they wished they weren’t there, but that it was a privilege as a citizen to be able to serve in a trial like this.”