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Can a judge prevent a lawyer from questioning potential jurors about media coverage?

Answer:

No, he cannot, thanks to Dippolito v. Florida, decided July 30, 2014. As a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney, I have often had to fight judges about letting me question potential jurors about their exposure to media coverage. In 2011, Dalia Dippolito was convicted in a murder for hire scheme in Boynton Beach, Florida. The jury found Dippolito guilty of paying a Boynton Beach undercover cop, posing as a hit man, $3,000. to kill her then spouse Michael Dippolito. A video of police officers approaching Dippolito at a staged murder scene in August of 2009 went viral and was viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. It was played at her trial and helped persuade the jury to convict her. The incident got a great deal of press coverage, both nationally and internationally. And because of the great media hype, Dippolito's lawyers wanted the trial judge to let them question potential jurors individually about their awareness of her case, what they had read or heard and whether or not they (the potential jurors) had been influenced one way or the other. Sounds like a reasonable request, right? After all, the jury selection process (known as voir dire) is crucial. It's a process that allows both the prosecution and defense to question potential jurors about their individual biases in the hopes of weeding out those jurors who cannot be fair and impartial. But a Palm Beach County Judge refused to allow it. The 4th District Court of Appeal said that was a mistake as it denied the defendant a fair trial. As a result, the higher court has overturned (thrown out) Dippolito's conviction and 20 year prison sentence. She has been released from jail, put under house arrest and $500,000. bail. "She wasn't provided a fair trial from day one", her lawyer said. At the start of jury selection, Dippolito's lawyers asked the prospective jurors if they had heard about the case. 28 of the 54 prospective jurors raised their hands. At this point, her lawyers were concerned that the entire jury pool could be contaminated if one juror mentioned something prejudicial in front of the others. But the Judge asked a sweeping question of all the jurors collectively (as they always do) and concluded that all the jurors could be fair and that none "held any strongly held opinions on the merits of the case." When Dippolito's lawyers questioned the prospective jurors about their knowledge of the case, one juror mentioned a report that Dippolito "had tried to poison her husband with antifreeze". The higher court, in overturning her conviction, wrote that Dippolito's lawyers "had the right to ask these jurors what specific information they had learned from the media; the jurors' show of hands was insufficient to protect her right to a fair and impartial jury."

Lesson Learned:

In my opinion (which I have formed over many years of trying criminal cases) Judges often rush criminal cases. They view defense lawyers as obstructions in the courtroom, trying to delay the proceedings at every turn. But good defense lawyers must protect the interests of their clients at all times. That's exactly what they were doing here. The defense lawyers were right and the Judge was wrong. In fact, the Judge was so wrong (I'm sure in his quest to ' move things along' ) that now, the entire trial must be done again. Rather than taking an hour (at most) to question the 28 jurors individually about what they had heard or read and whether it had any impact on them, the Judge chose (as they often do) to speed things up and 'not waste time'. Which I've always found odd, because Judges are paid the same whether they preside over trials or not. So now, this Judge must spend hundreds of additional hours and tens of thousands more in taxpayer money to try a case all over again. My compliments to Ms. Dippolito's defense lawyers who pressed the issue, protected their client and refused to give up.

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