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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Jurors on Trial in Pre-trial Questionnaires, KCF Murders, Enron

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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A murder trial in Bowie County has gained some notoriety for a voluminous questionaire used to question potential jurors. Romeo Pinkerton is the first of two defendants being tried in a case involving the kidnap and murder of five people taken from a KFC Restaurant in Kilgore in 1983. 350 potential jurors were summoned, a number some defense attorneys thought too small, given the notoriety of the case. Venue has already been moved from Henderson, some 115 miles away.

The 23-year old case got a break when a retired FBI agent turned to blood evidence that had never been tested for DNA, comparing a sample found at the scene against a national DNA database of felons and turning up Pinkerton and Hartsfield, the two men currently being tried.

As noted in the Houston Chronicle, the questionaire, with over 120 pages, quizzes potential jurors on “everything from what’s on their bumper stickers to what television crime shows they regularly watch to whether they have either volunteered, worked or know someone in the criminal justice system.” Though some jury experts cited the risk of jury fatigue, Houston defense attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Dan Cogdell both spoke highly of the questionnaire and of jury questionnaires in general in getting candid opinions free of ‘group think’.

The emphasis on pre-trial questionnaires is likely heightened in this case for two reasons. First, the Texas Attorney General, who is prosecuting the case, is likely considering the death penalty and wants to ensure that the jury that it picks is death qualified. Additionally, likely anticipates having to combat the CSI effect in presenting evidence on more than 20-year old DNA. The defense, of course, is interested in these same issues with different objectives.

With a jury not expected to be impaneled for another two weeks and a lengthy trial expected, one has to wonder if all this won’t generate some interesting responses from folks who would sooner stick needles in their eyes than sit through a trial conducted by the same people who made them write out answers to 120 questions just to get on the jury.

12 Angry Houstonians

Wisconsin trial lawyer Anne Reed has a great article on pre-trial questionnaires on her Deliberations jury blog, examining the 5th Circuit brief of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling (via White Collar Crime Prof Blog) and finding a litany of jury statements in the questionnaires that would strike fear into the heart of any defendant. How did they end up on the jury? Here’s one argument:

the court made clear the answers it was looking for: “we want people who will listen to the evidence,” “we really want people who can start with an open mind,” “we don’t want you to prejudge people,” “we want 16 jurors … who will faithfully, conscientiously and impartially serve.” . . . The jurors responded by retracting their inflammatory questionnaire responses and insisting they could be fair.

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