Noted jury consultant at U of M

 by Tom Kirvan

Legal News
She has a knack for “reading people like a book,” a talent that Dr. Jo-Ellan Dimitrius has used to full advantage as a jury consultant in a series of high profile cases including the likes of O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, Reginald Denny, Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant, Robert Blake, and Jody Arias.

Dimitrius gave a glimpse of her legal skillset Oct. 9 at the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor during the opening program in the 2014-15 Town Hall Lecture Series sponsored by the Margaret Waterman Alumnae Group, which provides scholarships to eight University of Michigan students this year.

“She has served over 30 years as a trial consultant and has consulted in over 1,000 trials,” said Town Hall Chair Marge Biancke in introducing Dimitrius to a packed audience at the event. “Her uncanny ability to understand and predict the behavior of jurors, witnesses, lawyers and judges led to her nickname, ‘The Seer,’ by American Law Magazine.”

Dimitrius’s appearance on the U of M campus came approximately a year after she suffered a heart attack while hiking with her husband in Arizona. The health setback last fall forced her to postpone a scheduled talk in Oakland County the next day.

“Four stents later, I am thrilled to be here and to have the opportunity to talk about ‘reading people,’ a topic that has been at the heart of my consulting work over the last 30 years,” Dimitrius said.

In fact, Dimitrius has co-authored the book Reading People and also has written Put Your Best Foot Forward as well as several other books that target legal professionals.

“I help lawyers design questions for the jury selection process,” Dimitrius said of her consulting work. “Actually, jury selection is a misnomer. What we do is jury ‘de-selection.’ We do our best to exclude those who have an obvious or not-so-obvious bias toward our client so that we can impanel as impartial a jury as possible.”

It’s a near impossible task, she acknowledged, given the “eclectic nature” of the jury pool, which often contains those with “widely varying IQs,” political persuasions, and disparate economic backgrounds.

“All it takes is one juror with an agenda to make a case go sideways,” Dimitrius said. “It is my role to help identify that potential juror and to ensure that they aren’t selected.”

As evidence of the challenge, Dimitrius opened with a bit of comic relief, replaying some of the best “Jaywalking” episodes from Jay Leno’s time on “The Tonight Show.” The video clip of Leno’s question-and-answer series showed in graphic terms the limited smarts of the typical man-on-the-street, those who struggle with such questions as “Who wrote the autobiography of Malcolm X?” and “Who is the vice president of the United States?”
“These are the type of people who can end up in the jury box, deciding the guilt or innocence of someone charged with murder,” Dimitrius said. “It’s a reality that we have to deal with in helping pick a jury. We are in the business of studying human behavior, of how people react to stimulus, such as a lawsuit or a criminal charge.”

Dimitrius graduated from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., in 1975 and obtained her master and doctoral degrees from Claremont Graduate School. Her doctoral dissertation was titled, “The Representative Jury: Fact or Fallacy.”

Her consulting career gained nationwide attention in 1994 when she was retained by O.J. Simpson’s legal team to assist with jury selection.

“I can remember vividly doing the dog-and-pony show in front of O.J. Simpson’s legal team – (Alan) Dershowitz, (Robert) Shapiro, (Barry) Scheck, and the like – as they interviewed me about my jury selection work,” Dimitrius recalled. “It was a fascinating experience and once I received word that I had been chosen to help them, it became all consuming. We actually did three phases of research in that case to assist in the jury selection process.
Ninety percent of what we do happens before the trial actually begins, whether it be in the form of mock trials, surveys, or focus groups.”

Dimitrius said that she sat through all nine months of the murder trial that resulted in the 1995 acquittal of Simpson, who was charged with brutally killing his wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, on June 12, 1994.

“I was focused mainly on the jurors, watching how they responded to the various witnesses and attorneys, offering my insight on how they might be leaning,” she said. “I also helped in evaluating witnesses, trying to determine whether what they said or how they said it got in the way of the message they were conveying.”

In one instance that proved particularly telling, Dimitrius said she relayed the jury’s reaction to an off-camera courtroom hug that prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark gave to police detective Mark Fuhrman after he finished testifying one day.

“Everyone on the jury saw it and reacted negatively to it,” Dimitrius said. “However innocently it might have seemed, I’m sure it is something that Clark wishes she could take back, especially after Fuhrman was discredited as a witness.”

Following the trial, Dimitrius said she was asked by Random House to write a book on her involvement in the case, an offer that would eventually lead to several other publishing opportunities, including the Put Your Best Foot Forward self-help treatise.

“I ‘read people’ for a living and I want them to know what they can do to make the best impression,” Dimitrius said in explaining the inspiration for the book.

According to Dimitrius, there are five “magic pills” that people can take to “help make the best possible impression.” First and foremost, “smile” and make it “genuine” and “sincere,” she said. Next, make “eye contact” and offer a “warm” and “firm” handshake.

“Good posture also is vitally important and demonstrates interest and credibility,” she said.

“Finally, and of utmost importance, is the need to show energy. It is a calling card for you.”

Jurors, according to Dimitrius, relate well to attorneys who follow the “best impression” techniques, and are sensitive to clothing colors, hairstyles, and simple mannerisms. 

“Men are seen as more approachable if they wear lighter colors, such as khaki or olive,” Dimitrius said. “For women, a lot depends on height. Tall women are seen as intimidating, so they become more approachable by wearing pink or softer shades. Shorter women can wear darker clothing in order to be taken more seriously.”

She illustrated her points through a series of slides depicting such celebrities as actress Lindsay Lohan, songwriter Phil Spector, and singer Michael Jackson, each of whom committed various “crimes of fashion” during their respective courtroom appearances over the past decade.

“Their cases certainly were affected by how they appeared in court,” Dimitrius said. “In Lohan’s case, bare arms and a plunging neckline didn’t serve her well. She seemed to get the message with each successive appearance.”

As her legal star has risen, Dimitrius admitted that she is more selective about the type of case she takes.

“Unlike the early part of my career when I was building a business and a reputation, I am now in a position to make choices about the cases I work on,” she said. “I am grateful to be in that kind of position, where I can assist clients and causes that I believe in.”