Denver Bar Association
January 2002
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Moye Steeples His Way to Foreman.

by Diane Hartman


A new view from the jury box.

A new view from the jury box.

John Moye has often been called, but never chosen. Sure, he’s gotten plenty of jury notices, showed up at the City and County Building, sat in those puffy leather chairs, heard the standard juror speech and done plenty of waiting.

"I like those big chairs. I always go to a corner, open my laptop, plug it into my wireless telephone, log into the office and I’m ready to work."

John has been a law professor and associate dean at the University of Denver College of Law, a lawyer for 32 years, a frequent lecturer, author of articles and books, director of this, chair of that, and president-elect of the Colorado Bar Association. Some might call him a globe-trotting wheeler-dealer, much admired for his brain, wit and energy. Others are just stunned that he can do an entire "rap" on contracts that goes on for 10 minutes, without missing a beat. He’s also an experienced trial lawyer.

Recently, he got a jury notice. He showed up, prepared to sit, work and leave. "I was just astonished that I kept proceeding through" the process.

He knew both lawyers and judge and they knew him.

During voir dire, "I was asked if I could be impartial. Now, research tells you that jurors will lie when asked if they’ve ever had a bad experience with a police officer or if they have ever had difficulty with the law. They’ll lie because they want to serve."

When a lawyer asked him if he could be impartial, John said ten reasons why he couldn’t went through his head, but he found himself saying yes. "You get this overwhelming sense of impartiality in spite of your biases. You think, ‘I’m really going to do this right.’"

When "I realized I’d been picked, I was really, really excited. I went back to work and cancelled everything."

His case was the trial of Nathan Harrison, who was accused of the murder of Melvin Washington. "Nathan was a homeless kid in his 20s and Melvin was an older homeless man."

"They were all hanging around the 7-11 on Arapahoe Street by Skyline Park. Washington was outside the 7-11 and one of Harrison’s friends started ‘spare changing’ him. Washington became upset and said it was his territory and that the kids had no business asking for money in his own territory. They had words. Later that night, Washington was sleeping on the steam grate on 18th and Arapahoe. Nathan and two of his buddies were getting ready to bed down on the top of the Bank One parking garage, after having a rollicking time of injecting heroin, smoking marijuana and putting LSD drops in their eyeballs. They looked down, saw Washington, and remembered the earlier incident. They went down and kicked him almost to death. He died a week later in the hospital."

Harrison was charged with murder. "One of his accomplices had already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was ready to testify that Nathan was there."

Harrison had been caught in California and jurors saw a 90-minute videotape where he said "I was there but I didn’t do anything." An alibi witness testified she was with Harrison.

John said all the lawyers "tried the case incredibly well. They were prepared. The exhibits were ready. The presentations flowed appropriately. One thing you always do is disclose the weakness of a case early on. The D.A. brought out from the beginning that Harrison was intoxicated on drugs and not capable of forming mental intent."

When the jury retired, John was immediately elected foreman.

"It was because I made steeples with my hands. It completely verified all the research I’ve done. The guy who makes steeples (where you put your hands together, up against your nose) will be chosen foreman."

The jury was diverse: "Some students, a couple of teachers, a nurse, two or three businessmen and women, one man who looked like he might be homeless and several stay-at-home moms. I was the only one who wore a tie—that might have helped me get elected."

As soon as they were in the room, John took an initial ballot. "We had a substantial difference. It was something like 8–4 for acquittal on the first ballot. A lot of them were having trouble putting him at the scene of the crime. The only thing that linked him was the confession and his already-convicted buddy, and you could tell he would lie. Half of us thought Nathan might or might not lie, but I wouldn’t believe him.

"I was surprised at how seriously all the jurors took this case. And surprised at how stubborn people who have real doubts can be, even when it’s clear they’re the only one with that opinion. A nurse said she couldn’t convict him, because he had the body language of an abused child."

After asking to watch the videotape again, the jury began to take ballots on separate elements: How many felt he was there? How many felt he participated in the crime? "Finally, we decided we couldn’t convict him of first- or second-degree murder, but we were unanimous on manslaughter."

What did John, as a trial lawyer, learn? "I realized how much jurors will trust the lawyers if they believe they’re trustworthy—and that they’re fascinated by what lawyers do. I learned that jurors know a whole lot more than I might have thought."

There was no discussion about the lawyers’ hairdos, or their dress. "Nobody dealt with personal stuff . . . it was all very serious." Jury research indicates that what the jurors think about the victim or the defense counsel are the two major factors in the verdict. "I didn’t see that at all."

"It certainly revalidated the jury process in my mind. It would be an honor to participate in the process again from this entirely different perspective."

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