The murder trial of Joseph Daniels earlier this month required 16 jurors from Hamilton County to stay isolated in Dickson County for 10 days while evidence was presented.
This sequestration is done to prevent a jury from being exposed to information about a case that may be inaccurate or affect their ability to be impartial, said Dickson County Circuit Court Judge David D. Wolfe, the judge at the trial.
Sequestering a jury is a consideration for every first-degree murder case. Most non-murder trials last only one day, Wolfe said, and for ones that last longer, jurors are usually free to go to lunch and go home at night. However, they are still instructed not to do independent investigations or read anything about the case.
“They are on their honor,” he said.
Sequestered jurors have even more instructions with no access to their phones, computers or even smart watches.
Jurors are not searched, but they do turn in their phones to their jury guards who sometimes have to check to make sure no one has access to electronics they’re not supposed to.
“That’s our biggest concern is to try to make sure they don’t have a cellphone or something or something that allows them to get online and do their own research,” Wolfe said.
During jury selection for a sequestered jury, prospective jurors are told on the front end that they will be isolated. That way, jurors who have reasons for not being isolated or away from work for two weeks can be excused.
“We need to know that on the front end because we want the jury to be composed of people who are not worried about something outside of what’s going on in the courtroom. We want them to be focused on what’s going on in the trial,” Wolfe said.
A judge looks at statutory exemptions to service such as economic hardship or being a primary caregiver to a child or elderly parent.
“The foremost thing is to find people who have the ability to give up their day-to-day lives for the period of time that you’re asking them to do that,” Wolfe said.
The Joseph Daniels case had four alternates. Just before deliberations began, four juror numbers were chosen randomly. These four jurors immediately went home, while the other 12 remained to hear the case.
While sequestered, the state provides the jurors with lodging, food, transportation and other services. However, sequestered jurors are paid only $30 a day. (Non-sequestered jurors get around $10.)
That fee is state law, but Wolfe says it should be higher.
“In my opinion, jurors who come in and are willing to serve ought to be compensated more than just a nominal amount,” he said.
While most of a juror’s day is spent in the courtroom, they do have some time after court has recessed for the day and, in the case of longer trials, on the weekend.
During this time, they can watch movies, play board games, exercise, swim and read (although no movies or books about the legal system). They can also make monitored phone calls to their family.
Bailiffs, or jury guards, stay with the jurors around the clock, including at the place of lodging, and drive them to the courthouse.
“By and large our jury guards have always interacted appropriately with the jurors, and they have managed to establish a rapport that makes it more comfortable for the jurors,” Wolfe said.
As for lodging, Wolfe says his jurisdiction tries to use state parks. Lodging makes up a considerable amount of the cost because jurors have their own rooms to make it easier not to talk about the case.
“You can imagine if we put them in a room where they were roommates, how difficult that might be to make sure that that doesn’t happen. So, everyone has their own room. which increases the cost, but it also means that we are better able to isolate them,” he said.
Until deliberations start, jurors are instructed to not discuss any evidence or details of the case. Wolfe, who has been practicing law for 43 years, said that jurors typically adhere to those instructions.
“My experience has been that jurors have a civic-minded responsibility that they accept when they are on the jury and that when you tell them this is what they have to do, that almost universally, they are receptive and follow my instructions,” he said.
If jurors break these rules, then a mistrial is declared, and the process has to start all over.
Sequestering a jury does pose considerable cost to the county. For the Joseph Daniels trial, the total cost will be determined after all of the invoices from food, lodging and other vendors are filed, according to court clerk Pam Lewis.
The jury for the Steven Wiggins murder trial this summer will also be sequestered. The jury status has yet to be determined for the trial of Krystal Daniels, Joseph Daniels’ wife, who will be on trial for aggravated child neglect. Her trial date has not been set.