Defense Attorney Jessa Nicholson: I Love A Jury!

Jessa Nicholson

Jessa Nicholson is a private bar criminal defense attorney in Madison, Wisconsin. She runs a two attorney firm, Frederick/Nicholson, LLC, with her business partner, Terry Frederick. Jessa attended the University of Michigan for her undergraduate studies and the University of Wisconsin law school. She is a member of the Wisconsin Bar, the Dane County Bar Association, and the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. Frederick/Nicholson, LLC provides all types of criminal defense both state and federal, including felonies, misdemeanors, and OWI/traffic offenses. Jessa has successfully litigated a number of criminal cases both at the pre-trial stage and through jury trials, winning dismissals and acquittals for clients in both felony and misdemeanor matters. In her spare time, Jessa enjoys art, books, strong ale, good music, and not being in a suit.

I Love A Jury:

Second only to jokes about lawyers are the jokes about juries. You’ve heard them before. Juries are composed “twelve people so dumb they can’t get out of jury duty”. But, while most jokes about lawyers are somewhat (ok, almost entirely) justified, the cracks about jurors, in my humble opinion, are more or less completely out of line.

I love a jury. Love them. I cannot stress this enough. I fell in love with the jury twenty minutes into jury selection of my very first trial, when I got up to introduce myself. The attorney for the government had stood up and, very formally, professionally, and properly stated his full name and title and rattled off the names of his colleagues at the district attorney’s office.

I, on the other hand, so full of coffee and nerves that I could barely hold myself up from the knees, waved enthusiastically and half-spoke, half-yelled “Hey, everybody! I’m Jessa!!” The whole room shouted back, “Hi, Jessa!!” Some even waved.

Right then, before I had so much as asked any of them a question, I was hooked. I love a jury.

Some might tell you I’m in the minority there. For starters, the fear of public speaking currently ranks higher than death in most polls, so statistics show that your average individual would quite literally sooner shoot himself in the head than have to talk for days on end in front of a group of twelve strangers.

Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that trial attorneys have somehow overcome this fear (though I’m of the belief that every good lawyer gets a tiny bit nervous before beginning a trial—not so much that it affects his performance in any way, but just enough that it makes him at the top of his game), I can say that I’ve got a lot of friends in my profession, and their opinions of juries are all across the map. Some of them hate a jury, believing that jurors feel a duty to convict regardless of the evidence. Some believe that juries are unpredictable. Some have the utmost respect for the (admittedly inconvenient) task that jurors undertake. It varies. Again-and I cannot stress this enough—me? I love a jury.

Why? Let me start off by saying that, contrary to the jokes, I don’t believe for a minute that my juries are stupid. Where I practice, it’s quite the contrary—almost all of my jurors have college degrees; many of them hold master’s degrees or higher. Now, obviously, this has something to do with my local demographic, but it’s worth noting. Additionally, I find my jurors are attentive, inquisitive, and, by and large, very concerned with being fair. Regardless of the verdict, I have never had the experience of believing that my jury did anything but its job-carefully considered (and often took pages of notes on) the evidence, deliberated over the elements of the crime, and reached a conclusion.

The other thing that’s great about a jury is the process of jury selection. This is often overlooked in fictionalized portrayals of the court room for sexier things like cross-examination and closing argument. However, the composition of your jury is just as important as anything that happens in the trial. It gives the lawyers the opportunity to play armchair psychiatrist, trying to analyze every blink and sigh that a person exhibits during the selection process. I myself, I strike “lurkers”. People that sit quietly in the back row, not volunteering much information-lurkers make me nervous.

I like to know what they’re thinking. Some attorneys are more prone to strike the talkers, because of concerns that one talker might overpower or convince more quietly-tempered jurors to switch sides and vote the other way. I don’t know that either decision is right or wrong, but making the call makes you feel like you’re honing in on your craft, that you’re developing something special in picking your jurors with care.

Plus, jury selection is one of the rare occasions that, as a lawyer, I get to really talk to the people who are making the decision, rather than just talking at them. I get to ask questions, get a sense of who these people are, what they believe in, and what they do. I had some of the most honest conversations of my life about racial relations in this country with a group of prospective jurors, after one individual was struck for cause and happened to be the only person of color in my jury pool. (Unfortunately, all white juries are a regular occurrence here.)

The prospective juror that was struck had, prior to leaving the pool, stated that he didn’t believe any black man could get a fair trial from an all white jury. After he was dismissed, I had the opportunity to ask the other jurors about their feelings regarding the man’s statements, and the forthright, thoughtful answers that followed were way beyond any argument I could have made about race in my closing. I couldn’t have written anything more powerful than the dialogue these people started in the jury box.

While the jury process is certainly not without its flaws (see above, where I mention that all white juries are a common occurrence here), I can’t think of a better, more interesting, more delightful process than the system of trial by jury. I’d never joke about that.

Lawyers, on the other hand, are a totally different story.

11 replies
  1. Larry Urquhart
    Larry Urquhart says:

    Hello Jessa–I found your web site after we both hung up the phone. I enjoyed taking a look at it. I will do everything possible within bounds of ethics for Jacob. I left you a voice mail message on your cell phone that his car was turned over to a passenger riding with him–it was not impounded.

  2. donnellbll
    donnellbll says:

    Jessa, I’m late, I’m late, but I always love to read your words of wisdom. I can just picture that jury yelling howdy. I’ll have to catch you another time, I suppose! Thanks for being here.

  3. Terry
    Terry says:

    As one of those people who’s always selected for a jury, I have to say I enjoy the work and feel it’s my responsibility as part of a democratic (more or less) society. On my first trial, I was impressed with the way everyone in the jury room made a sincere effort to look at the case from all possible angles, and not to jump to any conclusions.

    At least a trial by jury gives the feeling of taking part in something democratic. I think I’d want 12 people like me on a jury if I ever needed one.

    Peg – where I am, being related to anyone in law enforcement is usually grounds for “thanks, but no thanks”. I answer honestly because my brother-in-law worked in law enforcement for the BLM. He was basically a ‘plant cop’ because a lot of what he dealt with was people stealing St. John’s wort or oak burls. But he carried a gun and had the authority to arrest people. But the judge thanked me for giving him the best laugh he’d had in some time, and I wasn’t sent home for that one.

  4. jessa
    jessa says:

    I wouldn’t write off *all* bizarre attorney behavior through nerves…some attorneys are just a little batty, but yes, I think that, particularly with young lawyers, there’s a lot of nervousness that happens in front of a jury.

    JD–Part of what I love about juries is exactly what you’re saying, that we have NO idea what’s going in their heads. I had a little trial a couple of weeks ago where I was sure that they’d be back with a guilty in a half hour or less, and 6 hours later, I got a mistrial because two of the jurors didn’t think that the government had proven the element of intent in a battery. That wasn’t something that I had argued (the alleged battery was a punch in the face, domestic) and it wasn’t something the DA had even put time into developing. It’s always interesting. I’ve never had the opportunity of being called in (I’m sure I’d be struck for obvious reasons, but I’ve never even been called up for the pool), and that’s something I really wish would happen for me, because I’m so curious as to how people interact. One of the judges in our county was called up for a drunk driving trial a few years ago–the defense attorney struck him for cause.

  5. jessa
    jessa says:

    Hey everybody–
    I guess I wasn’t realizing that there were questions! (Sorry about that!)

  6. Peg H
    Peg H says:

    I made it as far as Voire Dire and was sent home. Could it be because when the DA asked me if I thought a police officer was infallible, I replied increduously, “I’m married to one!” ???

    Not only did the DA and the entire gallery crack up but the judge, the defense attorney, and even the court stenographer laughed. 😉

    No one ever takes me seriously…right Lee? 🙂

  7. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Sorry, Guys. I’m guessing Jessa got tied up on a case today. I’m sure she’ll be around at some point to answer your questions. Let’s just hope all is well. I’m sure it is.

  8. JD Rhoades
    JD Rhoades says:

    Jessa! Always glad to see my Sister at the Bar.

    I like juries as well, but confess they make me nervous because you may think you know what’s going on in their heads, but you don’t know. I had a colleague trying one yesterday who was convinced they were going to convict. They came back in three minutes–literally–with a Not Guilty. No one could recall a faster jury verdict, ever.

    One thing all jurors do have in common though: they’d rather be somewhere else. So the main thing I’ve learned is to move things along as fast as I can while still doing the job.

  9. Elena
    Elena says:

    While I’ve been called for jury duty a number of times I’ve never been ‘seated’ – the first time because both the defendant and the victim were students of mine. I’ve also been a witness in a number of cases.

    That said – you finally cleared up a mystery for me that has lurked in the back of my head. It never occurred to me that some attorneys are nervous about talking – that would be the obvious reason for some of the very odd behavior I’ve seen in court. Now it makes perfect sense, and gives me a lovely morsel of color for my WIP – thank you!

  10. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Nice post, Jessa! The Bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh recently made headlines because he had jury duty. He probably could have gotten out of it, but he chose to do his duty and serve. I don’t remember which case, but it was a criminal trial.

    I got a jury summons for Common Pleas court twice, and both times I was 8 1/2 months pregnant. Someone actually came to the house to make sure it was true. I was also summoned once for federal court, but I wasn’t chosen for a jury.

  11. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Hi, Jessa.

    You can put me down as one who believes strongly in the jury system. Though we can all recount infamous stories of cases in which the jury seemed to “blow it,” I think it works remakably well the vast majority of the time.

    What amazes me most is the concept that a banker, factory worker, homemaker or store clerk can stand up to the government and say, “We don’t believe he is guilty, you must let him go.”

    That is powerful.

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