Not Guilty I Love Brooklyn Juries
Brooklyn juries have undergone a major transformation in recent decades. The borough’s changing demographics, particularly the influx of educated, affluent professionals to neighborhoods like Williamsburg, has led to a phenomenon lawyers call the “Williamsburg Effect.” This article will examine how gentrification has changed the makeup and tendencies of Brooklyn juries, and the implications for defendants in criminal and civil cases.
The Changing Face of Brooklyn Juries
Not too long ago, Brooklyn juries were known for being heavily minority, working-class, and distrustful of police and authority figures. As Brooklyn native and veteran defense lawyer Julie Clark put it, “The jurors are becoming more like Manhattan — which is not good for defendants.”
But gentrification has significantly altered the borough’s jury pool. From 2000 to 2012, the percentage of white people in Brooklyn grew from 41% to 50%, while rents spiked 77% over the same period. The influx of affluent, educated professionals has made Brooklyn juries whiter, wealthier, and more likely to side with the prosecution.
High-profile defense lawyer Arthur Aidala explained, “When I was a prosecutor 22 years ago, a jury would be 80 percent people of color. Now, the grand juries have more law-and-order types in there.”
Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Vincent Del Giudice agreed, saying “The juror pool is getting more cosmopolitan here in Brooklyn. There’s more of a blend across all socioeconomic strata. I see a lot more highly educated people. I see more college and post-graduate degrees.”
This demographic shift is changing verdicts across Brooklyn’s courthouses. Defense lawyers report that the new jurors are more trusting of police and prosecutors and more likely to convict. Meanwhile, plaintiffs in civil cases are having a harder time winning big monetary awards from the more affluent, pro-business juries.
Implications for Criminal Cases
The gentrified jury pool is leading to more convictions in Brooklyn’s criminal courts.
Defense lawyer John Paul DeVerna explained, “The ‘Williamsburg Effect’ affects every case that goes to trial.” The educated “hipsters” who now fill the jury box are more likely to believe police testimony.
DeVerna said a contrarian-minded juror from Williamsburg could potentially sway other jurors to acquit. But if that person gets along with everyone, their confidence and education can “hijack” the jury towards conviction.
Prosecutors agree the new Brooklyn juries are more prosecution-friendly. For instance, white transplants from the Midwest or West are less likely to believe police would plant evidence or use excessive force.
The shift is also impacting grand juries, which have historically leaned anti-police. Now, grand juries contain more law-and-order types, making them more prone to hand up indictments based on police testimony.
High-profile acquittals were common in the past, often due to jury tampering or intimidation by mob bosses like John Gotti. But today’s juries are more trusting of police and prosecutors, leading to more convictions.
Implications for Civil Cases
Not only are Brooklyn’s criminal juries getting tougher, but civil juries are becoming more conservative in awarding damages.
Plaintiff attorney Charen Kim explained, “We’re dealing with more sophisticated people, and they don’t believe [plaintiffs] should be awarded millions of dollars for nothing.”
The pro-business, anti-litigation sentiment of the gentrified jurors has made it harder for plaintiffs to win big verdicts for injuries and other damages.
For example, plaintiff lawyer Edmond Chakmakian received a $6 million settlement for his client who was severely injured falling from scaffolding. But Chakmakian believes the “white-bread” Brooklyn jury would have only awarded $2 million if the case went to verdict. He settled because the jurors’ backgrounds made them skeptical of the large damages claim.
The demographic change has also reduced anti-corporate bias. Today’s educated jurors are less inclined to punish deep-pocketed defendants simply because they have money.
As a result, plaintiffs’ lawyers know they face an uphill battle convincing juries to deliver substantial punitive damages against corporations. The days of easily winning million-dollar verdicts are gone in gentrified Brooklyn.
How Judges and Lawyers Respond
Attorneys on both sides are adapting their trial strategies to the new Brooklyn jury pool.
Defense lawyers look for educated jurors who are likely to trust police and resist huge damages claims. Plaintiffs’ attorneys do the opposite, seeking out working-class minorities who may resent corporations.
In some high-profile cases, judges have taken the rare step of fully sequestering anonymous juries to minimize outside influence. For instance, mob boss John Gotti’s 1992 federal trial used an anonymous, sequestered jury chosen from a wider geographic area.
Judges also aim to make jury service less burdensome in lengthy trials. In the Gotti case, the judge allowed sequestered jurors conjugal visits with spouses to ease the months-long separation.
Other judges permit jurors to keep their cell phones for coordinating personal affairs, though never for researching the case. Occasional home-baked treats from the judge can also boost juror morale during long trials.
Ensuring juror wellbeing and minimizing stress is crucial, since even emotional reactions by courtroom spectators can impact the jury. For example, after an emotional day of testimony in Dylann Roof’s trial, Roof’s mother collapsed in court from a heart attack, which undoubtedly affected the jurors.
The Future of Brooklyn Juries
The borough’s rapidly changing demographics ensure that Brooklyn juries will continue to “gentrify” in coming years. But there are steps that judges and policymakers can take to make juries more representative.
Expanding jury source lists beyond voter rolls could increase minority representation. Judges can also probe deeper during jury selection to uncover subtle racial biases.
Simplifying convoluted jury instructions would also help; research shows many jurors don’t fully understand court instructions. Trainings for jurors on key legal concepts could improve comprehension.
Another proposal is greater use of “blue ribbon” juries containing experts on complex technical issues, like intellectual property or medical malpractice. Though this raises concerns about elitism.
Reforming the jury system will be challenging. But with thoughtful policies we can work toward juries that better reflect Brooklyn’s diversity and fulfill their solemn role in our justice system. One thing is certain – Brooklyn juries will continue evolving alongside the borough itself.