Last week a mistrial was declared in the case of Dr. Joseph Zolot and nurse Lisa Pliner, who were facing federal criminal charges for prescribing opiates. They were charged with conspiracy to violate federal drug laws and eight counts of drug distribution. 11 of the 12 jurors wanted to convict them. And according to this article in the Boston Globe, the sole holdout juror wrote a letter to the judge in which she described her experiences and how she was bullied during deliberations. For standing her ground and sticking to her principles in the face of peer pressure, this juror is, in my opinion, nothing short of heroic.
Here are some excerpts from the juror’s letter:
“One of the jurors started yelling at me . . . and I left the courthouse thinking that I would rather break a toe than spend another day stuck in a room with the other jurors. Whenever anyone gets irritated it does seem like I have become the scapegoat…. Only four people bothered to read what I wrote and the rest seemed to just dismiss my ideas. Some, but not all of the jurors have started to accuse me of not being as thorough as they are. I do not agree with this. I believe this is just because they are frustrated with me and have stopped respecting my ideas… Deliberations may be edging towards misconduct (as I interpret the situation).”
The juror added that other jurors proposed trading votes, that and some switched their votes from the minority view to the majority, with one explaining that “she had to.”
It’s tragic that 6 people died from overdosing on painkillers prescribed by Zolot and Pliner. But as harsh as it may sound, these people made the choice to take drugs, with full knowledge of the danger involved. Doctors are not responsible for the decisions that their patients make. It’s wrong that medical professionals can face criminal charges merely for not being strict enough in denying their patients access to medications.
So for giving these two individuals, who in my opinion should never have been charged, another shot at justice, the holdout juror did the right thing. I don’t know if I would be able to stick to my convictions while outnumbered 11 to one.
The judge, Judge Patti Saris, called the juror’s note “improper,” but I couldn’t disagree more. The bullying experienced by the holdout juror shines a light on the problems inherent in our jury system. Any system that requires people to be unanimous is unfair to those who hold unpopular views. With a hung jury considered an extremely undesirable outcome, and judges customarily urging deadlocked juries to resume deliberations until they reach a verdict, it can be nearly impossible for a minority juror to stick to his or her beliefs. Unless all of the jurors happen to genuinely share the same opinion, this system leads inevitably to jurors being pressured into voting against their conscience. Perhaps a better system would be one in which jurors simply vote, either anonymously or not, and either immediately after closing arguments or after a period of group discussion of pre-determined length. In any case, the holdout juror’s actions took a lot of courage and made me think. For that, I salute her.