When she was rolling perms and snipping bangs at age 18, she never thought she’d be in a courtroom someday, helping top trial lawyers win multimillion-dollar awards and ‘not guilty’ verdicts.
But that’s what LaDonna Carlton ’78, M.S. ’81 does, providing opinions to attorneys as to whether they should reject or accept a potential juror based on her jury selection system. She’s considered a founder in the field of trial consulting, becoming a nationally known consultant and a public figure during the O.J. Simpson murder trial when providing Chicago TV stations legal commentary.
That’s a long way from being a hair stylist who married young out of high school and later became a single parent to her son, Brad Carlton. She didn’t start college until she registered for a sociology class at 25. Although she wasn’t exactly sure what sociology was, the course fit her schedule. One class turned into two and she kept going.
Carlton married Bloomington attorney Jerome Mirza, considered one of the top 100 personal injury lawyers in the nation. She started learning about the legal process by shadowing him in the courtroom, sitting through depositions and jury instructions. Soon it became apparent that she had a way of quickly summing up potential jurors. As Mirza questioned them, he’d glance over to read her facial expressions and found she could predict whether the candidate would be sympathetic to his case.
“He knew I was pretty much on target,” she said. “He was brilliant as a lawyer, but I had a better sense of reading people.”
While working on her sociology homework in the courtroom, she was soaking up the trial process. College of Education Distinguished Professor Emeritus Paul Baker helped her hone her research skills, and suggested she do a comparison study of local country clubs for an assignment.
“That’s how Dr. Baker helped me see the value of sociology, not just in an academic setting but in the real world,” she said. “He was a luminous professor who understood the diversity of his students and made every student feel important.”
At 35 she had her master’s and shifted directions, selling radio advertising in Bloomington. In 1987 she moved to Chicago for a radio advertising job. After getting fired twice in the volatile world of big city advertising, she started a jury consulting business, Carlton Trial Consulting & Research Center, Inc. In 2002, she sold it and four years later opened Carlton Research, a litigation consulting firm.
Carlton’s work has led to a strong connection with lawyers. She met with friend and attorney Jim Walker in his Bloomington law office.
Carlton has worked on civil and criminal cases, from white-collar crimes to violent crimes, including death penalty cases. In each case, jury selection is more of a de-selection process, she said, weeding out potential jurors who could harm your case. The pace is quick; sometimes she only has a minute or two to make a decision.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll leave the courtroom and think, ‘Oh my God, did I leave someone on the panel that I shouldn’t have?’”
When she’s evaluating potential jurors, she looks at four factors: their answers, the way they answer a question, their dress, and their body language. “You have to really concentrate on all the nuances and stay very focused. You’re listening to what they’re saying, you’re observing the way they’re saying it, the way they look, whether they’re hesitating or not.”
She’s trying to figure out what type of information it’ll take for them to make a decision—whether they’re more analytical or emotional. If she’s working for the plaintiff, she wants empathy. If she’s with the defendant in civil cases, she wants analytical. And sometimes, she relies on her gut.
“It takes a lot experience to do this,” she said, estimating a decade is required to become seasoned enough to be really good. Most of the time lawyers defer to her, but not always, and ultimately it’s their jury. Occasionally she’s misread a juror who ended up causing a mistrial or a hung jury. The majority of her cases involve multimillion-dollar lawsuits because otherwise it wouldn’t be cost-effective to hire a jury consultant.
After nearly five decades in the courtroom, she’s still a strong believer in the U.S. justice system.
“I’m in awe of our court system,” she said. “Every time I interview jurors, it makes me more of a believer. They take the job very seriously. They don’t want to make a bad decision. They realize it’s that person’s only day in court.”
When people ask her how to get out of jury duty, she reminds them it’s a privilege, that the U.S. is the only country that allows a jury trial for civil cases. Although she’s been called to jury duty, she’s never been chosen. One time she identified herself as a trial consultant, the judge wasn’t impressed.
“He said, ‘Just how in the world do you help lawyers select a jury?’”
When she started to explain, attorneys on both sides objected and she was excused.
“No one would want me on a jury,” she said. “I know something about the industry, and lawyers want to be the teacher of the facts.”
Juries are changing as Generation X-ers and Millennials step into the courtroom. Ten years ago cases were decided by Baby Boomers and senior citizens. Now juries might elect a 23-year-old foreperson with little patience for lawyers using flip charts and shuffling through papers.
“Lawyers today have to use technology and keep it moving,” Carlton said. “Let’s face it, we’re used to sound bites and lawyers have to keep pace. Cases are still won or lost on facts, but the way some of those facts are presented will make a difference.”
Sometimes Carlton interviews jurors post-trial, especially if companies have similar cases pending or lawyers want to know why they won or lost. She also conducts mock trials, prepares witnesses for testimony, and provides photographic images and video—producing and directing day-in-the-life films of victims catastrophically injured. She began her passion for photography at Illinois State and continues to study with National Geographic photographers and other professionals.
Carlton has never been tempted to go to law school. She believes she has a better job than a lawyer, who might only step into a courtroom once a year since only 5 percent of cases go to court.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I’m a student at heart, I am. Learning new things is what makes me want to start my day.”
That day might include a class on holistic nutrition, a walk with a Cairn terrier tucked into her backpack or biking with her spouse, Fred Rosen. At 67, the former marathoner also said she might take up running again. She says that in a way that makes it clear she sees no end to anything she does, regardless of what trials are ahead.
VIDEO: Watch video from Carlton’s appearance on WGN to discuss the Blagojevich case: