Time was a Brooklyn defendant could expect a speedy and public trial by an impartial, heterogeneous jury, selected from the richly diverse pool of Brooklyn residents. (This was, I think, sometime before the year 2000?) But the times, they are a-changin’. Or rather, the jury pools are. Well-off, educated white people have stormed the shores of Brooklyn in droves, gentrifying the borough’s jury pool just as they gentrified its post-industrial neighborhoods.
The portentously-titled “Williamsburg Effect” (that’s a future band name if ever one existed) has affected “every” trial in Brooklyn, according to former prosecutor and defense lawyer John Paul DeVerna. He told the New York Post that “a contrarian-minded person — and Billyburg has them in spades — can cause discord in the jury room. And if the hipster gets along with everyone, that can even be more dangerous because they are confident and educated, which means they have the potential to hijack the jury.” Lesson: never trust a confident, educated person.
“The jurors are becoming more like Manhattan — which is not good for defendants,’’ added defense lawyer Julie Clark. “I’m not sure people from the University of Vermont would believe that a police officer would [plant] a gun.’”
This would all be a bit silly if the “Williamsburg Effect” weren’t having an impact on verdicts. Several lawyers and one judge noted the increasing “cosmopolitanism” and “white-bread” nature of Brooklyn juries, which poses empathic problems, if not racial ones. Impartiality only takes you so far; if your lived experiences of the neighborhood, the streets, and the police are almost entirely different from the experiences of the person who’s fate you’re determining, bias can creep in. It’s worth remembering that the city disproportionately arrests, harasses, and incarcerates its working-class and minority citizens.
“People who can afford to live in Brooklyn now don’t have the experience of police officers throwing them against cars and searching them,” said high-profile lawyer Arthur Aidala. “A person who just moves here from Wisconsin or Wyoming, they can’t relate to [that]. It doesn’t sound credible to them.”
The effect is that civil juries now show more pro-defendant leanings, according to the Post‘s (admittedly unscientific) reporting. Of course, short of a comprehensive analysis of jury sentences correlated and regressed to demographic changes, there’s no way of actually knowing whether this is true or whether it’s anecdotal. But the mere belief of the “Williamsburg Effect” is already changing the way cases are being handled: one plaintiff lawyer said he was so sure that the civil jury weighing his client’s case would be tainted by that he chose to settle before a verdict for damages was announced.
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