Kadner: Jury selection in a murder trial
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org February 18, 2014 10:44PM
Updated: February 19, 2014 4:28PM
This is how a murder trial begins. Seventy-five men and women reported for jury duty Tuesday at the Cook County courthouse in Bridgeview and discovered they were in the pool that would eventually decide whether Allan Kustok murdered his wife, Anita “Jeanie” Kustok, in their Orland Park home in 2010.
For the next eight hours, most of the potential jurors would spend their time sitting on wood benches in the courtroom of Circuit Court Judge John J. Hynes or milling about in the hallway outside the courtroom.
Eventually, close to 7 p.m., seven would be chosen for the jury in a courtroom where the public and news reporters were locked out but Kustok family members (all under subpoena as witnesses) were allowed inside. I asked a bailiff for an explanation for the secretive jury selection and got none.
It was that kind of day.
The judge seemed deeply concerned about the jury pool’s exposure to pretrial publicity, asking early on how many of them had read stories or heard news reports about the Kustok case.
About 25 of the potential jurors said they had, and the judge then announced that each of them would be interviewed in his chambers one at a time about what they had read or heard.
In most criminal trials, the questioning of prospective jurors to determine their suitability, including whether they have been biased by pretrial publicity, is conducted in open court.
Initially, they might be asked collectively if they had seen or heard anything about the case and whether they felt they could still issue a verdict based strictly on the evidence presented in court.
If someone answers “no,” the judge might ask to see the juror in chambers along with the attorneys to determine if there were something in particular the prospective juror knew that prevented him from sitting in judgment or if he was just trying to find an excuse to get out of jury duty.
But Hynes decided to interview every one of the 25 pool members behind closed doors for hours as the rest of the pool sat in his courtroom until 2 p.m. At that time, the judge said he and the attorneys for both sides had learned from the interviews that a news report about the Kustok trial had appeared in the morning on the TV in the room where potential jurors first report.
Had any of the potential jurors who previously indicated that they had not seen or heard anything about the trial seen that TV news story? Twelve people raised their hands and said they had viewed it.
Why they had not admitted that earlier when questioned by Hynes remains a mystery. But the judge and attorneys now had 12 more people to interview one at a time in chambers.
Before the new round of questioning began, the potential jurors were told they could go to lunch (it was now 2:15 p.m.), but they would have to find their meals on their own (and pay for them). There is no cafeteria in the Bridgeview courthouse.
At 3 p.m., the individual questioning continued behind closed doors as the remaining jurors waited some more, seated on courtroom benches. This was surely not what they expected from television programs and movies about criminal trials.
Actually, it was rare in my experience as a reporter.
Finally at 4:05 p.m., the public questioning of the jury pool began. This is what most of us are familiar with — a group of potential jurors (21 at a time in this case) are seated in a jury box and asked if they have ever committed a crime, if they know any of the people involved in the trial and some basic questions about their jobs, interests and reading material.
There were also some questions about whether they could hear a case fairly if a gun were involved (Mrs. Kustok was shot in the head) or if they had any prejudices against spouses who cheat (Kustok reportedly had several affairs).
One man said he didn’t trust police officers (because he had been stopped multiple times for traffic violations) and couldn’t be objective about a philandering spouse (he was divorced). Ultimately, he would be dismissed from the jury pool.
However, a woman who appeared to be about eight months pregnant was selected. The trial is expected to last two weeks.
After the general questioning of the 21 potential jurors, with the other 50 or so looking on, all of the jurors and courtroom observers were asked to leave the courtroom for a recess. The courtroom doors were locked. A few minutes later, select jurors were called inside, one at a time.
I peered through the glass courtroom doors and noticed that Sarah Kustok, the daughter of Allan and Jeanie, and a well-known former sportscaster in Chicago, was still in the courtroom. She previously had announced that she was under subpoena as a witness, but her attorney said she was there Tuesday supporting her father.
Also in the room were Kustok’s sister and the brother of Jeanie Kustok. The only other people there were the attorneys and the judge.
It seemed obvious that jury selection was taking place, but it wasn’t happening in public.
Members of the jury pool, left to mill about on their own in the hallway, were grumbling.
“We’re human, too,” one pool member said to a bailiff when the courtroom doors finally unlocked about 7 p.m., “someone ought to tell us what’s going on.”
There was a lot of grumbling along those lines among the potential jurors, who seemed willing to do their duty but were not pleased with the lack of respect demonstrated by the judge.
Finally, Hynes announced that seven jurors were chosen, gave the names of many who were dismissed and told the rest of the pool to report back at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
And that was how the murder trial of Allan Kustok began.