A Third of Potential Jurors Expressed Bias

By Joseph A. Reaves
The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
January 24, 2004

Court documents unsealed Friday show that roughly one-third of the 70 potential jurors in Thomas J. O'Brien's hit-and-run trial admitted they had formed an opinion, or expressed an opinion, about the bishop before testimony began.

Those potential jurors were excused before a final panel of seven men and five women was sworn in.

The jury pool in O'Brien's case began with 155 men and women, but 85 were excused when they told the judge they faced extreme personal hardship if they were forced to sit on a lengthy trial.

Attorneys for both sides in the case asked the remaining 70 potential jurors to fill out a 16-question survey, which Judge Stephen A. Gerst of Maricopa County Superior Court promised would be kept confidential.

However, The Arizona Republic and 12 News asked Gerst to reconsider his ruling because jury selection is supposed to be open to the public, except in compelling and narrow circumstances. After a 26-minute hearing Jan. 15, Gerst agreed to make the juror questionnaires available once he was sure all deeply personal details and information that could identify the respondents was blacked out.

The edited questionnaires were released Friday.

There was no way to determine which questionnaires were filled out by jurors who were seated or those who were rejected, except that potential jurors who admitted bias were excused.

Twenty-four of the 70 potential jurors answered yes to the question: "Have you formed any opinions or expressed any opinions concerning Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of the Catholic Church?"

Another question asked potential jurors if they had formed on opinion or expressed an opinion about O'Brien's guilt or innocence.

Fifteen potential jurors said they had.

"I believe Mr. O'Brien knew he hit a large object or person," one wrote. "He failed to exercise common courtesy and responsibility in failing to stop."

Another said simply: "I believe a man of God would react differently."

More than half the members of the jury pool identified themselves as Catholics, though about a third of them said they were lapsed. There was no way to determine how many Catholics were finally seated on the jury, but separate questioning in court revealed that only one of the 12 who began hearing testimony last week had a Catholic education.

Forty-eight potential jurors, slightly more than two-thirds, said they had seen, heard or read things about O'Brien outside the hit-and-run case. That was a clear reference to the bishop's role in a sex-abuse scandal in the Phoenix Diocese. O'Brien signed an immunity agreement to avoid prosecution on a possible obstruction of justice charges six weeks before the hit-and-run accident.

All but two of those who said they knew about O'Brien's role in something besides the hit-and-run case were critical of the bishop. But one potential juror said "the constant harassment of the bishop" probably caused "tremendous mental and emotional stress."