People v. Michael Jackson in Santa Barbara, People v. Robert Durst in Galveston and People v. O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles. Three celebrity trials, three not guilty verdicts.
All of the above cases, in 2005, 2003 and 1995 respectively, were complete media circuses. Reporters camped out at the courthouses day and night, stories ran on the front page of newspapers both national and local daily and updates from the trials played out on the evening news every night. During the Jackson and Simpson trials devoted fans picketed the legal proceedings to show their unwavering support.
With each not guilty verdict there was a public uproar. Everyone had an opinion on how the trial should have gone done or how the jury should have ruled. In the years since there have been countless hours of television and movie programming dedicated to deciphering how (and why) the cards fell the way they did—to Emmy-winning results. But the one thing so many people neglect to analyze is the experience of the regular people whose lives were upended by their service on the jury.
Starting this Saturday, Oxygen, which is in the middle of a complete rebranding to become the new network for crime lovers, is tapping into just that. The Jury Speaks is a four-part special that brings together members of the jury from the trials of Durst, Jackson and Simpson, as well as the acquitted killer of Trayvon Martin. E! News spoke with Lionel Cryer, juror on the Simpson case; Robbie Nelson, juror on the Durst case; and Paulina Coccoz, juror on the Jackson case, to find out what life is really like when the fate of a celebrity is in your hands.
Each of their experiences are separate, but they all had a similar motivation for participating in the Oxygen series: To clear the air about what really went down during some of the most-watched trials in recent history. As Nelson explained, the only question she's ever received from people who know she served on the Durst case is, essentially, how could you not convict him?
"Until you're in that jury seat and in the deliberation room and they gives you specific orders on what you can judge that person on, you just won't understand," she said. "In the past I had calls to do interviews and I've always chosen not to do them. But when I got the call from Oxygen I thought, you know what, it's time. I want the jury's side to be heard."
As with any trial, whether it's a run-of-the-mill DUI conviction or the murder trial of one of the most famous athletes of all time, the selection process is the same. Jurors are randomly summoned and must report to the courthouse for questioning—and there's no way to predict whether you're being called for a one-day project or a trial that will take months. All three jurors recall reporting for their very first day with no idea the responsibilities that were about to befall them.
"I had heard about the trial coming up through the news but I had no clue that's what my jury summons was for," says Nelson. "It was pretty much immediate that I realized I was there for the Durst case; they sat us down and told us they were trying to seat the Durst trial and I just thought, Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?"
For Coccoz, her aha moment was one that also found her completely starstuck. "In the beginning when we reported we all assumed it was for something big, but we didn't really know what," she told E! News. "But a few days into questioning I walked through the metal detector and there I was staring straight at Michael Jackson. He was wearing the same color scheme as I was and we were just staring at each other and our outfits. That's the moment I realized what I was there for."
At the Simpson trial, Cryer wound up connecting the dots before the official reveal. Like the others, he knew that O.J.'s trial was imminent but arrived to the courthouse completely in the dark—it took several callbacks and some very leading questionnaire topics to tip him off.
"There was a point where the light bulb went off in my head as I was reading questions and I just said to myself, this is about O.J.," he says. "Then later we were in the jury room, there must have been about 300 of us, when the door opened and Judge Ito, the defense attorneys and the prosecutors all walked into the room. We all knew then and there."
While the process may seem typical at the outset, the interviews that jurors on a high-profile case are subjected to take a decidedly...let's just say thorough turn. Potential selectees can sit through interviews and questionnaires for hours and even days, answering everything from what they do for work to what kinds of biases they might have. And it's definitely not a cakewalk.
"The interviews were so long and there were hundreds of people who showed up that it took at least a week," Coccoz says of the Jackson selection. "We were split into groups and had to do all sorts of questionnaires and it was just exhausting. I remember the day I was selected I was so drained that I wasn't even sure if I was actually selected."
It's at that moment of selection that the realities of serving on a celebrity jury really begin to sink in. And, more importantly, that the rules come down. The sequestration of the Simpson jurors was so taxing and restrictive that it has become the stuff of legends. As soon as the trial started the entire group was sent to live at a hotel without access to, essentially, the outside world. They were allowed to make phone calls and to see family and friends and even to read the newspaper, but not without some very large caveats: Phone calls were to be made with the supervision of security guards (who even dialed the number for the jurors), time spent with loved ones happened during pre-arranged visiting hours and the LA Times would arrive completely cut up, a primitive form of redacting.
"Being sequestered was probably one of the hardest things in my life, especially taking into account I had no experience with jail," says Cryer. "To be sequestered in a hotel with sheriffs overseeing you on a daily basis, keeping in mind they all work in the jail system, initially it felt like jail. And the deputies sort of treated us like prisoners."
During the other two trials jurors were allowed to stay at home for the duration of the proceedings, but were still subjected to strict rules governing their daily lives. For Nelson and the rest of the Durst jury that meant staying away from any and all media, staying off the Internet entirely and not discussing anything about the case with family and friends. For Coccoz, the rules of the Jackson had a much stronger affect.
"The rules changed my whole world," she says. "I couldn't be a waitress anymore and I ended up working in a market. They had to constantly hide me in the back because of people knowing who I was and making comments. So I was basically sequestered."
The trial processes also presented some security obstacles: The sheer volume of reporters who flooded each town to cover the case and the legions of fans staking out the courthouse each day meant that jurors couldn't just come and go as they pleased. The Simpson jurors were all protected by the sheriffs who oversaw their sequestration, but in Santa Barbara and Galveston the jurors described the scene at the courthouses as quite scary. To protect them and keep them from being bombarded by the media they were sent to nearby locked parking lots and shuttled into the courthouses through back entrances.
Ironically, these jurors hadn't even made it to the true hard part yet. To start they would have to sit through upsetting and at times very gruesome evidence and testimony. It's been years since the trials (decades in the case of O.J. Simpson) but each juror admits that there are certain moments of the proceedings that have never left their memories. During the Durst case it was the day the prosecution showed the evidence photos of Morris Black's dismembered body. For the Jackson case, the testimony of Martin Bashir, the journalist who made the documentary that led to the child sexual abuse charges, was the most memorable—his lawyer invoked his First Amendment privileges and objected to almost every single question from the prosecution.
When Cryer thinks of the Simpson trial, he has three points that stick out above everything else: The cut on O.J.'s finger, for which an explanation was never sufficiently given; the testimony of forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee, who claimed that there had been a second perpetrator at the scene and that evidence may have been tampered with; and police officer Mark Fuhrman, who Cryer believes planted the bloody gloves.
The deliberation process famously comes next and it's here where the celebrity jurors report feeling the most emotional weight. The seriousness of any criminal trial, whether it be murder or sexual abuse, cannot be overstated, but a famous trial brings an extra layer of scrutiny. "Looking back, there was so much pressure on us as jurors," says Nelson of the Durst deliberation. "The prosecution so wanted a conviction out of us. But there were so many points that they couldn't prove and questions they couldn't answer. At the end of the day you're sitting in the deliberations and asking yourself, can you send someone to prison beyond a reasonable doubt, for the rest of their life? That was the hardest part."
For Cryer's part, he was initially selected to be an alternate, a position that brought him great relief because it meant that although he would be sequestered and would sit through the entire trial, he would not be part of the deliberation or the verdict. But as the case famously began to deteriorate and jurors began to drop like flies, he was quickly moved up to the official panel. "I was not excited," he cautions. "I looked around at all the people I was going to be making this decision with and I thought, this is going to be quite a ride."
The deliberation in the Jackson trial seemed to weigh on Coccoz the most. She developed a case of anxiety through dealing with the trial process and reports having a full-on meltdown the weekend before the jurors were due to deliver their decision.
"I walked into the room while my husband was watching the news and it just hit me like a ton of bricks," she recounts. "I realized how many people were waiting on my decision. I dropped to my knees and just thought, I can't do this anymore."
Once all three not guilty verdicts came down the jurors were released back to a life that was normal in principle but not in practice. Each of the three cases had been followed obsessively by the news media and by people across the country and the jurors themselves were immediately put at the center of it all. Nelson and her fellow Durst jurors were instantly inundated with requests for interviews on the morning shows and questions from reporters, with some of them flying out to New York immediately. Coccoz describes attempting to get back into the swing of things without even remembering what "normal" was. And Cryer couldn't even return to his own home the day the trial ended because of the media camped outside of it; he spent that first night in a hotel.
One of the most unique aspects of a famous trial, especially one that involves a celebrity on the stand, is that the story never really goes away. The public will never get tired of rehashing what went down in the courtroom but more than that, the narrative of the crime constantly changes—no thanks to the popularity of the true crime genre, of course. It's impossible to forget all the memories of the trial and it's (almost) impossible not to go down the rabbit hole of whether you made the right decision. Each of these cases, Robert Durst, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson, have seen developments since the original verdicts that threatens second thoughts.
"I have not watched The Jinx," says Nelson matter-of-factly. "Anything that has aired [on Durst] since the trial I have not seen at all. It's not that I've done it on purpose, it's just that we all have to live with our decision and we can't go back and change it. So what's really the point?"
The Jackson case was rocked by the singer's death in 2009, which is still mysterious to this day. "I was deeply affected by Michael's death," Coccoz muses. "I was really hoping that he would overcome his obstacles. It was difficult for me to understand why somebody, now that he had his life back, wasn't living it to the fullest."
The Simpson trial suffered a myriad of shockers, from the possibly tongue-in-cheek confessional book If I Did It to last year's documentaries and the FX drama. Taking all of this new evidence into account, as well as the developments that were brought to light during O.J.'s civil trial, has caused Cryer to have something of a shift in opinion.
"I've been re-living the trial through all these programs and they caused me to have a better perspective than I did with the evidence presented at my trial," he says. "In my trial I think the prosecution had an overzealous means of thinking they had a locked case, a guilty verdict. They overlooked basic things about how they conducted the investigation. If you're dealing with a celebrity of that magnitude you have to make sure nothing can be called into question."
But at the end of the day, what has most affected all of the jurors is that same issue they would have if they had sat through trials that no one knew about: The plight of the victims. In the Durst and Simpson cases, despite the fact that they weren't able to come to guilty verdicts, it didn't change the fate of Morris Black, Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. It's this fact that leaves Lon Cryer the most emotional.
"I don't want to lose sight of the main point, that two people were brutally murdered," says Cryer somberly. "I would like to give those families closure, which I wasn't able to do. I have had a bad feeling over the years for not providing that closure."
The Jury Speaks premieres Saturday, July 22 at 9/8 central on Oxygen.