FORT LAUDERDALE — Most citizens summoned to the local courthouse for mandatory jury duty consider it as either an opportunity to play an essential role in the justice system or the civic equivalent of Chinese water torture.
But not all jurors see it in those terms. Apparently, some Americans view their jury service as a chance to get rich quick.
This summer, federal prosecutors in south Florida charged the members of two different juries with participating in conspiracies to trade their votes for cash.
A jury foreman stands accused of accepting $500,000 to guarantee the acquittal of two major cocaine traffickers on trial in 1996 in Miami. In Fort Lauderdale, prosecutors broke up an attempt to sell a not-guilty vote to the defendant in a money-laundering trial for $175,000.
Such jury tampering cases are believed to be rare in the US. But legal experts say it's impossible to know how often jurors might be selling their votes because this is so difficult to detect.
"It is the stuff of movies and novels," says Nancy King, a law professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "It is not common at all." In 1995, Ms. King conducted a nationwide survey of judges to investigate the prevalence of juror misconduct. The 562 judges who responded to the survey reported only three cases of jurors being bribed, out of more than 26,000 trials in a three-year period.
Not all jury tampering involves an exchange of money. Any effort to bring outside influence to bear on a jury is considered tampering. It can range from giving jurors news accounts or other information excluded from consideration by the judge, to outright threats to harm jurors or their families unless they vote a certain way.
The most common protection against jury tampering consists of trial judges' daily instructions to jurors that they are to immediately report efforts by anyone to influence the jury's deliberations. The system depends on the honesty of the jurors and it can be an effective deterrent, experts say.
"You take a big risk when you want to tamper with a juror," says Carolyn Robbins, a Miami-based jury consultant, speaking hypothetically. "It is not such an easy thing to do, which is probably why I think it doesn't happen so much."
In some trials, juries are sequestered during their deliberations to protect them from outside influences.
In Colonial times, jurors were selected exclusively from a pool of wealthy property owners, in part, because they were deemed to be more bribe-proof than ordinary citizens, says King.
Experts say other safeguards are built into the trial system. Jurors are generally kept apart from others in the courthouse. The fact there are 12 jurors in criminal cases makes it difficult for a defendant to bribe the entire jury to gain an acquittal.
In the case of a hung jury - where one juror holds out for acquittal against the majority seeking to convict - prosecutors retain the right to bring the same case to trial again. So a single corrupt juror would most likely only drag out the legal process, instead of ending the trial with an acquittal for a guilty defendant.
That's why the Miami drug-trafficking case is unique. Prosecutors allege the defendants paid off the jury foreman, who was able to use his position as jury leader to persuade the 11 other jurors to vote not guilty on all 17 counts in the indictment.
The evidence against the alleged drug dealers was substantial. They were accused of importing multiton quantities of cocaine into the US in the 1980s. The trial became one of the largest, most important drug cases in a Miami federal court.
Is it possible that one determined juror could sway the entire panel? "You could see how one person could be paid off and that the case might end with a hung jury," says Rory McMahon, a well-connected private investigator in south Florida and former federal probation officer.
"But for one person to be able to persuade 11 other people to come back with an acquittal? That is stretching it," he says.
Others disagree. Sometimes, all it takes is one influential juror, says Candace McCoy, a professor at Rutgers University's School of Criminal Justice in New Jersey. She says the deliberating jurors work to agree on a unified story to explain the case. "If you have someone who is carefully manipulating and carefully organizing the story, I can see how other jurors would be swayed," she says.
IN the Fort Lauderdale case, the juror never had the chance to deliberate. The alleged jury-tampering plot was organized by two middlemen who apparently had no prior connection to the defendant in the money-laundering trial.
The middlemen approached the defendant during the trial and said they could guarantee a hung jury in exchange for $175,000. At the same time, the middlemen approached one of the jurors.
The juror agreed to vote not guilty in exchange for $15,000. Apparently the middlemen were prepared to pocket the remaining $160,000, according to prosecutors.
What the middlemen didn't count on was that the defendant in the case would go immediately to the judge.
After consultation with prosecutors, the defendant agreed to wear a microphone during his own trial to assist prosecutors in investigating the alleged jury tampering. Once the middlemen and the juror were arrested, the case ended in a mistrial.
Ironically, that is the same outcome the middlemen were seeking to guarantee. This time, it came free of charge.