Just when you make plans for the weeks ahead, something always comes up that gets in the way. I’m not talking about the storms, or flooding in our area. I’m referring to jury duty.
I got a jury summons the other day. The court wants me to call a day ahead of time to determine if I must come down to the courthouse or call again to see if I get picked. I get a summons every year, which puzzles me because news reporters like myself rarely make it to the jury box.
We may know things about a case that other jurors don’t, so reporters are more often than not excused.
Why reporters or anchors are even considered for a jury pool is beyond me? I’ve never sat on a jury before; there are many I’ve met over the years who have told me they have enjoyed it. I’ll responsibly go where I’m directed, like the time I was selected for a curious and highly publicized case when I was news director for KEYT-TV in Santa Barbara.
It was 1985, and I was summoned to appear as a prospective juror in the country’s first major legal battle against a tobacco company. The case involved one John Galbraith of Goleta, who for 54 years, chain-smoked cigarettes made by the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. Smoked right up until the day he died at 69, after suffering from lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease.
He was so addicted, that he would remove the oxygen tubes from his nose so he could sneak a smoke.
When the notorious and flamboyant San Francisco attorney, Melvin Belli, the self-proclaimed “King of Torts” got wind of this, he filed a $100 million lawsuit against RJR at the behest of Galbraith’s former wife, Elayne.
Before the trial even got started, it was becoming a circus. Opposing Belli, who came down to Santa Barbara in his yacht, was a defensive plethora of RJR corporate attorneys, public relations people, legal secretaries, and psychologists.
Selected to oversee this drama was the Honorable Bruce Dodds, a controversial judge who would later be portrayed as one of America’s worst magistrates on the ABC news show, “20/20” because of his apparent intense dislike of women.
With a cast like this, and so controversial a subject matter, media from all over the world descended upon sleepy Santa Barbara like the birds in the Hitchcock movie. In the midst of all this was I, not only as a possible juror, but also as the reporter and anchor covering the story for the town’s only TV station.
How could I do both? I asked the judge.
“You can be fair and impartial, can’t you Mr. Harris?”
“Of course, your Honor, but I feel there is a conflict of interest here,” I replied.
It was the wrong answer.
“Sit down and wait to be called, Mr. Harris.” So that’s what I did, for more than a week.
Out of more than 250 prospective jurors, I was the last one to be called. And that decision was deliberate, I came to find out.
Judge Dodds had been informed by one of RJR’s “spies” that I was overheard early on discreetly exchanging background and statistical information about the case to one of my reporters, who unbeknownst to both of us, happened to be standing right next to a possible jurist. No order had yet been given not to say anything, so I continued reporting. Dodds had other ideas. He hauled me into his chambers with the attorneys from both sides, and accused me of tainting the mind of a prospective juror causing her dismissal and thereby holding up the proceedings.
A reporter from another TV station later told me that one of RJR’s secretaries had been shadowing me and planted herself right next to me, while I had been conversing with my colleague.
I was surprised I wasn’t given the boot as well, considering, but my punishment would come later. After all the prospective jurors went through the ordeal of initial questioning, I was finally called and then promptly told I was excused.
So I watched the drama unfold from a seat in the courtroom as opposed to one on the jury panel. The trial lasted five weeks. Belli tried to convince the jury that his deceased client was truly addicted to nicotine and couldn’t help himself.
RJR countered that it was Galbraith’s responsibility. Despite all the current and growing negativity towards smoking, including the pronouncements of then Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Belli failed to garner the popular support he was expecting.
The jury was not convinced that Galbraith was indeed addicted, or that smoking killed him, and voted 9-3 for acquittal.
Since then, tobacco companies haven’t been so favored, in the courts or on the streets. San Luis Obispo, for example, was the first city to ban indoor smoking. Elayne Galbraith may have lost her case in court, but it paved the way to eventual victory.
Long-time TV, radio, and print journalist, King Harris’ “Good to be King,” column appears regularly in Simply Clear Marketing & Media’s The Bay News, SLO City News and Coast News. Send reader comments and Letters to the Editor, to: firstname.lastname@example.org.