Scales of Justice

March 25, 1994|By ROWLAND NETHAWAY

WACO, TEXAS — Waco, Texas. -- "Mrs. Jones, you pick your nose, don't you?''

''Young man, that's disgusting. And it doesn't have anything to do with my ability to serve on this jury.''

''That's for me to decide, Mrs. Jones. Now, I'm sure someone of your standing and high regard in the community wouldn't pick your nose in public, so what I want to know is if you pick your nose at home or when you think no one is watching.''

''Young man, that's none of your business.''

''Mrs. Jones, that's where you are wrong. The defendant sitting over there has been accused of seven drive-by murders, 12 rapes and 22 carjackings. And you can't help but notice that he constantly picks his nose. Now, in order to give my client a fair trial, I need to know if you pick your nose. And, if so, how often, and how do you dispose of the boogers.''

''Not on your life, young man. But I am willing to swear to render a fair and impartial verdict concerning your nose-picking client.''

''That's not enough, Mrs. Jones. I must remind you that if you refuse to answer my questions, no matter how intrusive or squirrely they seem, you are subject to being arrested and thrown into jail until you are willing to cooperate.''

''Since that would be up to the judge, I would like to hear what he has to say.''

''The counsel for the defense is right, Mrs. Jones. If you refuse to answer these questions, I'll have to hold you in contempt of court. At which point, you will be arrested, fingerprinted, photographed and put in jail.''

''Your honor, my husband and I have worked hard all our lives. We are law-abiding citizens. And that's the way we raised our children who have never been in any trouble. I'm here ready to perform my civic duty. And you're telling me that if I don't answer questions that invade my privacy then I am the one who is going to get thrown in jail?''

''That's how the criminal-justice system works, Mrs. Jones. You must answer the question now, Mrs. Jones, or I'll have you jailed until you are ready to show proper respect for this court and the rights of this defendant by answering all questions asked of you in this courtroom.''

''I will never answer personal questions that invade my privacy, your honor.''

''Deputy, arrest this woman.''

Since I'm making all this up, I'll say that Mrs. Jones stuck by her principles and spent the rest of her life in jail. The defendant was found guilty on all charges, sent to prison and, being a model prisoner, was released three months later.

What I'm not making up is that Mrs. Dianna Brandborg, who was called for jury duty in the North Texas town of Denton, refused to answer 14 of 100 questions on a questionnaire mailed to all potential jurors in a capital murder case. The questions poked into her religious beliefs, income, the type of car she drives and her political affiliations.

State District Judge Sam Houston had Mrs. Brandborg thrown into the slammer for contempt of court. Mrs. Brandborg was printed and mugged and was supposed to spend three days in jail. Her lawyer was able to get an appeals court to grant a temporary stay of her sentence. She posted a $100 cash bond and was released after spending only 30 minutes in custody.

The Texas Court of Appeals gave Judge Houston until April 11 to respond to Mrs. Brandborg's contention that she was jailed illegally. Mrs. Brandborg says she won't answer questions that invade her privacy. Depending on how things turn out, Mrs. Brandborg, 48, could find herself back in jail.

So there you have it: A juror's right to privacy versus a defendant's right to a fair trial. Balance that on your scales of justice.

Rowland Nethaway is senior editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald.

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