Hamilton Legal: Sequestrian Consternation

Imagine you’re a member of the jury for a big profile case, a case in which the defendant is not some meager, low-life crook but a powerful, threatening gang leader of a Brooklyn drug empire. It is not uncommon that during such trials, a judge would eagerly accept a prosecutor’s request to sequester the jury, or put them under close, 24-hour supervision for protection purposes. This was not the case for the jury of the trial involving Laron Spicer, the alleged leader of the Nine Trey Gangsters, a chapter of the Bloods gang who ran a drug empire across four Brooklyn apartment buildings. He, along with three members of the gang, is charged with the 2008 murder of a rival drug dealer as well as other gang-related crimes.

Mr. Spicer has not been shy with the tampering of court personnel in the past when he was previously convicted in the Brooklyn State Supreme Court of threatening to kill a witness police officer. When the officer asked Mr. Spicer, “Are you going to kill me?” Spicer answered, “I’ll have someone else do it for me.”

Considering this encounter, I would certainly be concerned if I were a member of the jury. Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr.’s decision on Wednesday, September 18 certainly came as a shock to many people. Perhaps what is more shocking is his completely inadequate excuse. He blames the 2013 budget sequestration for why he denied the prosecutors’ request to sequester the jury in Spicer’s most recent case.

In his decision, Johnson explains that the Judiciary receives seven billion dollars annually, which represents less than 0.02 percent of the total federal budget. His reasoning is that, because the Judiciary’s funding has been cut so much, they cannot afford to grant jury sequestration due to financial concerns. While I agree with Johnson that the judiciary’s budget is painfully low, the present case fits the exact criteria in which jury sequestration would be necessary and should thus be considered a priority before other, more trivial judicial operations.

Johnson details the four factors that determine whether a jury needs protection: “(1) whether there is ‘a demonstrable history or likelihood of obstruction of justice on the part of the defendant or others acting on his behalf,’… (2) ‘the seriousness of the crime,’… (3) the likelihood of pre-trial publicity… and (4) whether the defendant has access to means of harming the jury.”

He is willing to admit that the trial against Mr. Spicer matches these four factors and goes as far to say, “The Court concludes that the government has sufficiently met its burden in establishing that the jury in this case needs protection.” Then why would Johnson not elevate this matter to a position that warrants the use of the admittedly low budget?

Perhaps he has other, political motives. In his discussion, instead of focusing on the present case, he brings to light the August 13 letter that the Chief Judges of 87 federal district courts wrote to Vice President Joe Biden “to inform him of the devastating impact the sequestration cuts are having on the Judiciary.”

Along with the pathos of the, “unrelenting, unforgiving pain” that the Judiciary feels for  being “a co-equal branch of the government” – as it receives less than 0.02 percent – of the total federal budget, the letter clearly reveals his bitterness and intent to use the present case as a political pawn to show Congress that it should raise the Judiciary budget. Exploiting this case for political gains at the expense of the protection of the jury members is completely unethical.

Still, I do hope Congress notices Johnson’s decision. While I believe his excuse for denying jury sequestration is wrong in this particular case, I do understand his frustration at the severe budget cuts made earlier this year.

The Judiciary undoubtedly should receive more than .02 percent of the federal budget. Protecting citizens at home and ensuring justice is served must remain a high priority on our political agenda. 

      Contact Sara Sirota at [email protected].