Swift Justice? Not So Fast

Andrea Yates, the Houston mother accused of drowning her five children, is shown in a Houston courtroom, Sept. 20, 2001, during her competency hearing, in this image taken from television. Opening arguments in her capital murder trial are scheduled to begin Monday, Feb. 18, 2002, in Houston. She has said she is innocent by reason of insanity. AP/ KTRK/ Pool

If you think you are having a bad day, imagine for a few moments how bad your day would be if you were a juror in the case State of Texas v. Andrea Yates. Commentary by CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen, who's in Texas covering the trial.
If you think you are having a bad day, imagine for a few moments how bad your day would be if you were a juror in the case State of Texas v. Andrea Yates.

First of all, you would be sequestered, kept away from your friends and your family and your work and the rest of your life while the lawyers drone on and the judge schedules court each day from 10:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m or so. Why is the court session so abbreviated each day? Because Judge Belinda Hill is doubling up with another trial judge out of the same courtroom and that other judge, Joan Campbell, needs use of it in the early morning. Why doesn't Judge Hill, knowing that you are sequestered, scrounge up another courtroom to make your sequestration shorter? Ask her, not me. I cannot think of an answer. And how much longer will the trial be because of this schedule, caused by last summer's flooding and renovation? Days, perhaps even a week longer. Oh, and by the way, if you were a sequestered Yates' juror no one would necessarily know that because the judge hasn't yet seen fit to mention it publicly.

Next, you would have to endure the disorganization that has generally plagued this trial since it began. There is no excuse, for example, for the trial judge in a case with sequestered jurors not to plan ahead for obvious evidentiary disputes and resolve them before those disputes waste the jury's time. Many judges around the country, in fact, run such a tight ship over the attorneys before them in a criminal trial that virtually everything that goes on before jurors has been discussed, resolved and even scripted outside of the presence of those jurors. That isn't happening here. In fact, the opposite is happening here.

Take Wednesday morning, for example. The judge should have known before the session began that prosecutors would be seeking to offer into evidence a videotape of the crime scene, replete with images of the dead Yates children, as well as gruesome photos of the children after their mother had killed them. Prosecutors and defense attorneys, apparently, had spoken in private the night before about the admissibility of that evidence and it doesn't take a law degree to figure out that the defense would object to their introduction.

What should the judge have done to be sensitive and respectful to the jury? She should have resolved the issue Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning before the court session by requiring the attorneys to meet with her and a court stenographer in chambers to hash out the dispute, on the record, so that both sides would know what was what with such important evidence. That way, once the jury hit the courtroom Wednesday at 10:30 it would be clear sailing as far as witnesses an evidence went. What actually happened? The judge wasn't proactive, the lawyers hadn't agreed on the evidence, and so the jury was marched into court for a few minutes of testimony and then marched right back out again so the lawyers could fight for nearly an hour over what evidence is admissible and what isn't. Somewhere, Judge Lance Ito is smiling.

Then, if you were a juror in the Yates trial, you were brought back into court just after noon, once the evidentiary dispute was resolved, only to be told that it was time for the lunch recess, which means that on a day when you were sequestered from your loved ones you had actually heard less than one-half-hour of testimony all morning. But wait, it gets worse because then, if you were a juror in the Yates trial, you were told upon returning from lunch that court was recessed the rest of the day. "An emergency having nothing to do with the case" the judge said. What we think, on the other hand, is that one of the jurors has a sick spouse and may not be able to continue. So the third day of the Yates trial was pretty much a wash and I suspect all involved wouldn't mind a mulligan for it.

But it's not just today. If you were a juror in the Yates trial, you would not by law be allowed to know that if Andrea Yates is acquitted by reason of insanity it wouldn't mean that she will be walking the fine streets of Houston anytime soon. Jurors are barred generally from knowing about such sentencing options during the guilt/innocence phase of a trial but if you were a juror in this case wouldn't you want to know that bit of information before you decided on Yates' fate? I know I would. But it's against the rules.

No wonder citizens don't want to serve on juries. No wonder so many have lost respect for the justice system. And who said Texas justice is particularly swift?


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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