Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Ladies And Gentlemen Of The Juries: California Court Empanels Rotating Juries In Two Defendant Murder Trial
In a move that calls to mind the infamous Menendez brothers murder trial(s) from the 1990s, two juries have been empaneled in Stanislaus County Superior Court to hear a single murder case involving accuseds Jerry Michael Benge and his nephew, Sean Benge. The prosecution has alleged that Jerry, now 49, and his 30 year-old nephew are responsible for the shooting death of Steven Glenn Brown in his home outside Ceres.
According to the prosecution, the elder Benge got to know the victim's wife, Katherine when her son started visiting him to learn to care for a pig. Thereafter, as her children got involved with 4-H, Jerry and she spent more time together. Indeed, Jerry eventually moved his animals to Brown's home and visited daily to care for them. But apparently, that's not all that he was doing; instead, according to Katherine, their relationship intensified and "they started twice to have sex but did not continue."
The prosecution claims that Jerry then attempted to get Steven out of the way and "asked his nephew to help him 'get rid of' Steven Brown or 'cause him serious injury.'" According to this theory, Sean Benge entered Brown's home, waited for him to come home, and then shot and killed him.
So, why are there two juries in the case? Well, according to an article on the case, "[c]ertain evidence...is admissible against just one of the defendants," meaning that, say, Jury 1 and Jury 2 both hear most of the evidence, but Jury 1 is rotated out when there is evidence that is only admissible against Jerry and Jury 2 is rotated out when there is evidence that is only admissible against Sean.
And while the article doesn't mention the nature of the evidence, it does mention that Jerry apparently confessed to detectives. And if that confession at least partially implicated Sean and Jerry chooses not to testify at trial, the jury hearing Sean's case would not be able to hear that confession pursuant to the Confrontation Clause and the Supreme Court's opinion in Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968).
Also according to the article on the case, this is "the first time a Stanislaus County courtroom has used two juries in a single courtroom,...though courts in Sacramento and Los Angeles [such as in the Menendez brothers case] have used the method." According to court spokesman Michael Tozzi, "[t]he benefit is that it allows witnesses to testify once, rather than in two cases. Also, Tozzi said, the case could last six to eight weeks, so the judge and attorneys agreed a two-jury solution would be more efficient."
I agree with these observations, but despite similar claims at least as early as 1993, I get the sense that most courts are like the courtroom in Stanislaus County in that they have used the rotating juries procedure rarely, if at all.