To millions who can’t be in a courtroom during a high-profile trial, descriptions of jurors help the public examine the minds of peers tasked with determining a defendant’s fate.
The panel’s shock, awe, captivation or disengagement can provide a window into whether a witness is injecting doubt or pathos into the fact-finding process, while also helping keep tabs on whose side appears to be winning or losing.
But for many journalists covering the criminal trial of Bill Cosby in the Montgomery County Courthouse, the jury is out of sight. Instead, when reporters glance toward the jury box, they confront a hulking 87-inch screen that weighs more than a male polar bear and appears to have been rolled in off the set of a 1970s sci-fi movie.
On the right side of courtroom, where most of the inside journalists have sat throughout the Cosby trial, it’s all but impossible to see beyond the so-called SMART Board, where electronic evidence is displayed for the jury.
Depending on where you’re seated, you may catch a little bit of the blazered middle-aged man sporting a goatee, or perhaps occasionally flick your eyes on the younger man with muttonchops. Yet even seeing one or two of the seven men and five women on the jury, as Gannett reporter Karl Baker found out, can mean standing up, or craning your neck so far as to encroach on a neighbor.
“By the end of the week,” said Baker of the News Journal in Delaware who is covering the Cosby trial, “I might develop a sore neck from leaning to the side, over the lap of the New York Times reporter, to see half of the jury,” he said. “Think I have workman’s comp claim?”
When it was introduced in 2012, court officials praised the giant white board as a vision of advanced technology, even boasted that Montgomery County was the only location in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to brag of the high-tech device. Officials said it is capable of PowerPoint, video conferencing and playing audio. The $9,000 screen is so unwieldy, it cannot fit in the court’s elevator, relegating it forever to the third floor unless disassembled.
“Initially everybody was like, ‘wow, look at this monstrosity being wheeled into the courtroom,'” said Carl Hessler Jr., local courts reporter for Digitial First Media who said he has seen it deployed mostly for high-profile cases. “You’re kind of wow-ed by its size and significance.”
Some reporters speculated that the positioning of the board was a deliberate effort to prevent the sequestered Allegheny County jurors from interacting with the media, something court officials have denied, saying there was no other place for the screen to rest.
When asked about it, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said SMART Board conspiracy theories are outlandish.
“The main thing is that the jury sees the evidence on the screen,” Steele said. “So what we had to do is put it there.”
That may be true, said Eli Segal, free speech attorney at the law firm Pepper Hamilton, but placing the jury behind a wall is more than an unfortunate configuration. It’s also arguably a Constitutional obstruction.
“A key part of being at a trial is observing and evaluating what is going on and seeing the jurors and how they appear,” Segal said. “Not being able to see the jurors is limiting that First Amendment right.”
On the other side of audience seating in the courtroom, filled mostly with lawyers, supporters and some members of the public, there is one enviable perch occupied by People magazine writer Nicki Weisensee Egan. She is situated far enough to the left that she can take in all the jurors, though her view of the witness stand, Cosby and the judge is far less impressive.
“It’s not ideal,” Weisensee Egan said. “But it’s certainly better than the other side.”
Brian McMonagle, Cosby’s charismatic defense attorney who is a practiced player of audiences, didn’t hesitate to react to the massive screen on a recent court recess.
“I’m offended by it,” said McMonagle with a half-smirk. “If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing here, I’d be defending you guys over it.”
He then gave me an avuncular pat on the shoulder, put his reading glasses back on and walked back to his counsel table to confer with the world-famous comedian facing up to 10 years in prison.