Montgomery County defense lawyers: Lengthy jury deliberations bring ‘anxiety,’ hand-wringing

Veteran criminal defense lawyer John I. McMahon Jr. stands outside the Montgomery County Court House on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
Veteran criminal defense lawyer John I. McMahon Jr. stands outside the Montgomery County Court House on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Carl Hessler Jr. — Digital First Media
Veteran criminal defense lawyer Henry Hilles III said lengthy jury deliberations can create “anxiety” and hand-wringing for lawyers.
Veteran criminal defense lawyer Henry Hilles III said lengthy jury deliberations can create “anxiety” and hand-wringing for lawyers. Carl Hessler Jr. — Digital First Media

NORRISTOWN >> Veteran Montgomery County lawyers said a lot of hand-wringing occurs when juries undertake lengthy deliberations.

“There is a lot of anxiety. It becomes impossible to do anything else other than sit there and wring your hands and wait. From the defense standpoint, you have a person’s life and their whole family’s life in the balance and it’s a time of extreme anxiety for sure,” said criminal defense lawyer Henry S. Hilles III.

Norristown defense lawyer John I. McMahon Jr., who once had a jury deliberate for 20 hours in federal court, said the wait can be nerve-wracking.

“It’s very, very hard to do,” McMahon said about trying to read jurors’ expressions as they’re in court.

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“It really boils down to the personalities on the jury. And as a lawyer, whether you’re on the prosecution side or defense side, it’s your hope that you have the stronger personalities in your camp such that they can kind of convince the others that are not in your camp to switch over. So, it really boils down, I believe, to the personalities of the jurors.”

Hilles and McMahon, each a former prosecutor turned defense lawyer, spoke generally about jury deliberations while they were at the county courthouse on Wednesday, the same day the jury weighing entertainer Bill Cosby’s fate at his sexual assault trial entered an 18th hour of deliberations without reaching a verdict.

Hilles and McMahon have handled their fair share of high-profile local cases but are not connected to the Cosby case. But between them, they have decades of experience selecting juries and waiting for them to return verdicts.

Hilles said it’s very difficult to read the expressions or minds of jurors during a trial or when they address the judge during deliberations.

“You always look when the jury comes in and a question is presented to the court. Everyone looks at the jury to try to figure out, to try to get any clue you can, out of their demeanor and try to guess what they may be thinking,” Hilles said.

“But as much as you may hazard a guess, the reality is you don’t know what’s going on in that deliberation room and you don’t know where their mind is until they come out and announce it in open court,” Hilles added.

As for the marathon deliberations at the Cosby trial, the seasoned lawyers offered some insight.

“It clearly indicates to me that there is a disagreement, a strong disagreement amongst the jury. And the big question is what is the split?” McMahon pondered, echoing the thoughts of many courtroom spectators who have attended the Cosby trial. “At this point in time, I’m sure that this jury is exhausted. The longer this goes on the more likely you’re going to have a deadlocked jury.

“Of course, you never know. You just never know. I’ve been surprised in the past many times,” McMahon added.

Hilles agreed with McMahon.

“This is a long period of deliberation. What it tells me, clearly is that there’s not a meeting of the minds. In a case involving sexual-related charges this could be really problematic because there’s not necessarily a middle ground,” Hilles offered.

“In certain assault cases, jurors who disagree on the evidence can sometimes meet in the middle with respect to a conviction on a reduced charge. In a sex case it tends to be either all or nothing, and so obviously there would be concern on all parts that perhaps there never will be a meeting of the mind which of course would result in a hung jury,” Hilles said.

Interestingly, McMahon said, there were not a substantial number of witnesses called during the Cosby trial.

“It’s not the type of case where there were dozens and dozens of witnesses and it went on for weeks,” McMahon said. “Basically, it boils down to do they believe and find the commonwealth’s evidence credible and obviously, at a minimum, there are some people that are struggling with some doubt.”

The Pittsburgh area jurors weighing Cosby’s fate began deliberating Monday night, deliberated 12 hours on Tuesday and resumed their deliberations at 9 a.m. today.