The trial of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was already set to be one of the most celebrity-stuffed criminal proceedings in recent memory before Gigi Hadid got involved. On Monday, the supermodel appeared at the New York State Supreme Court to join more than 100 people summoned as potential jurors who will decide whether Weinstein is guilty of sexual assault. As part of the initial screening process, a judge asked Hadid if she felt she could be fair and impartial. She replied that she has met Weinstein and one of his accusers, Salma Hayek. But, she said, she felt she was “still able to keep an open mind on the facts.”
Hadid’s unexpected appearance raised questions about the nature of celebrity’s influence in criminal trials, let alone the most-scrutinized criminal trial of the year. Slate asked several legal experts to explain how the criminal justice system copes when stars are called upon to carry out their civic duty, why Hadid could be disqualified, and how the #MeToo movement has transformed the jury pool.
Is there any reason celebrities can’t serve on juries?
Not inherently. “The basic idea is that they’re like everybody else, and the only question is if they can be an impartial juror,” Youngjae Lee, a criminal law professor at Fordham University School of Law, explained. There’s two standard ways to kick someone out of a jury pool: citing a “for cause” reason and using a “peremptory strike.” The “for cause” eliminations are required to cite a specified reason, such as being related to the defendant or having already formed a position on the case, that would make that potential juror incapable of being impartial. Fame alone isn’t a valid reason to get you out of jury duty.
Things get more complicated with the round of strategic decisions from lawyers. Each side gets its own number of strikes it can make, and it’s very possible a lawyer could use one of those strikes on an A-lister.
Are there strategic reasons a lawyer wouldn’t want a famous person on a jury?
Sure. Some defendants might want to avoid the press attention a celebrity juror risks. But with Weinstein specifically, fame could be a factor in weighing the favorability of a potential juror. Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe, an acting professor at UC–Davis School of Law who specializes in criminal procedure, said fame might make the celeb able to see through a defense’s argument more easily. “So if the defense has a particular theory of defense, they might worry what kind of inside information or experience that celebrity might have that might make them averse to it,” Joe said. But this line of reasoning has more to do with Hadid’s insight into a particular world than it does with her fame.
Still, the model is one of the most influential people in the world. That effect could extend past her extremely lucrative Instagram and into the deliberation room. It’s possible that any celebrity’s charisma and star power could excessively influence other jurors during the deliberation process. (Joe noted that this is the same underlying reason lawyers are often struck from jury pools.) Or a celebrity might just be too distracting to the other jurors, making it harder for them to think carefully about a decision.
But according to the experts, it’s Hadid’s ties to Weinstein’s world—and a potential witness—that is more likely to cause her to be struck for bias.
What about famous defendants? How does the jury selection process cope with that?
It can be difficult to find people “with an open mind” who “haven’t been tainted by publicity,” according to Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University and former Manhattan prosecutor. That can be difficult, especially when dealing with a subject as fraught as sexual assault. But she doesn’t think jurors would have to be totally ignorant of the case. “Simply knowing about the allegations, having read about allegations, even being steeped in it doesn’t disqualify one,” she said. The juror should be able to hear the evidence, make a value judgment on the credibility of witnesses, and decide based on just what’s going on in the courtroom.
Seating a jury of people wholly ignorant of the Weinstein case would present its own issues. “If you imagine that the only juror who could sit is someone who had never heard of Weinstein or read anything about allegations against him, that would be a very unusual representation of our community,” Tuerkheimer said. “The defendant should be judged by his peers, by representatives of our community.” Therefore, “it would be odd to sit 12 people who essentially have been living in a cave for the past two years.”
Has the #MeToo movement had any effect on jury selection?
According to Tuerkheimer, recent high-profile sexual abuse cases like Weinstein’s have proved difficult because many potential jurors have strong feelings about sexual assault and harassment. But she thinks overall, the #MeToo movement has helped juries become fairer. “For most of history, we’ve mostly misunderstood how the world works when it comes to sexual assault,” she said. “We’re seeing a more educated jury pool that’s going to have a better store of background information they’re bringing to task to deciding the case.” Jurors are more informed about misperceptions about assault and can therefore more accurately judge the credibility of witnesses. “I’m hopeful we’re actually going to get fairer jurors,” she said, “jurors who are more tethered to the realities of the world in which sexual misconduct is rampant and mostly committed by people you know.”