Jury will decide fate of the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy

Jury will decide fate of the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy

CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - New trial. Same charges. Bigger stakes.

Carolina Panther Greg Hardy returns to court on Monday to appeal his 2014 conviction for assaulting and threatening to kill an ex-girlfriend.

Last July, the former Pro Bowl defensive end couldn't persuade a Mecklenburg judge of his innocence. Now he hopes for a better result from 12 of his peers.

His arrest and conviction for assaulting Nicole Holder was one of several domestic-abuse cases involving high-profile NFL players. The charges against Hardy are misdemeanors. Even if he's convicted, the 26-year-old is unlikely to serve any jail time.

But experts say the case has already cost Hardy millions in future earnings. A conviction could damage his market value even more.

"Careerwise and for his future, this trial is a huge risk," says veteran Charlotte defense attorney Claire Rauscher.

Once jury selection begins, Hardy can no longer drop his appeal.

Under state law, Hardy's earlier conviction has been wiped away. Everything starts fresh on Monday before Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner of Gaston County.

The trial will take place in the county's largest legal stage: Courtroom 5370 in the Mecklenburg Courthouse. National media coverage is expected. TV cameras and photographers inside the courtroom, which will be discussed Monday, also are likely.

Some things aren't expected to change: the claims and counterclaims of what happened on May 13 during the after party at Hardy's uptown condo; the glimpses of a celebrity lifestyle in which groups of young elites spend far more in a single night on drugs and alcohol than most Charlotteans can afford on their mortgages.

Yet in key ways, the trial could take on a far different feel, and juror feelings on everything from celebrity excesses to domestic abuse could influence the verdict.

The jurors

So how long will it take the attorneys to pick 12 jurors and two alternates who haven't formed fast opinions on everything from Hardy and the Panthers to domestic abuse and the outcome of the first trial?

Educated guesses from legal experts across the city vary from a day or two to far longer. "Better part of a week," estimates Richard Boner, a recently retired Mecklenburg judge with more than 25 years on the bench. "(Defense attorney Chris) Fialko and the district attorney are going to be very, very careful."

Charlotte attorney James Wyatt says lawyers will do whatever they can to spot bias or preconceived notions – from dissecting a prospective juror's answers to studying body language.

In the end, nothing is foolproof.

"You can try to smoke them out, but if somebody wants to get on that jury bad enough, they aren't going to be honest with their answers," Boner says. "It's not a perfect system. But we have to live with it."

The attorneys

Hardy's defense attorneys are Chris Fialko of Charlotte and Frank Maister of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who joined the case in late October. Fialko was part of Rae Carruth's defense team in 2001 when the former Panther was convicted of conspiring to murder the mother of his unborn son.

The prosecutor is Jamie Adams, head of the Mecklenburg District Attorney's domestic-abuse unit since its creation three years ago. She has tried numerous cases in Superior Court.

With one trial behind them and Hardy's fate now in the hands of a jury instead of a judge, the attorneys may try the case differently, experts say. For starters, they've sat through a trial, heard testimony and seen the strength and weaknesses of the witnesses.

Wyatt says the defense team has probably been running different approaches past mock juries. It also paid to have a court reporter at the first trial to capture every word; now that transcript will be used to trap any inconsistencies in testimony of prosecution witnesses.

Steve Ward, a former longtime county prosecutor now teaching law at Belmont Abbey College, says the tone of the second trial should be different.

"A judge is not going to be swayed by a dramatic presentation, but a jury very well may be," he says. "Trials with juries are, in some degrees, a bit of theater. You have to entertain the jurors. It's like going to the movies: Do you want to watch documentaries or do you want to watch a drama?"

Wyatt says smart attorneys try to spot the dominant jurors as the trial unfolds. "You make sure to engage them," he says. "As a lawyer, I want to provide those jurors with arguments and evidence that they can use in the jury room."

Rauscher expects the attorneys to keep it civil. "Nasty doesn't play well. People in juries much prefer civility," she says.

Though Fialko and Adams rarely raised their voices during their first meeting in July, Ward feels the second trial could turn mean, particularly in stronger efforts to discredit witnesses.

"Hardy's career is on the line. The defense will not be holding back," he says. "A judge will discount a lot of the innuendo, of raising past bad behavior. A jury will often judge a witness as harshly as the defendant."

The verdict

Boner, who heard cases throughout the state, says Mecklenburg juries can be unpredictable.

They are more racially and geographically diverse than those in neighboring counties, he says, and they are more likely to question prosecutors and police.

He says some verdicts in his courtrooms have left him speechless.

"I truly believe I could sell the Brooklyn Bridge or some swampland in Florida to some of the people who serve on juries here. The environment is just different."

Local judges now tell jurors to put aside what they think they know about criminal justice from watching "CSI" and other TV crime programs, and Rauscher says the courts are facing a growing problem with jurors going online to inform themselves about the case or criminal procedure. That led to a recent mistrial in federal court in Charlotte.

Biases over race, wealth and celebrity, and who's really to blame for domestic abuse could also complicate the jurors' discussions, experts say.

In the end, Wyatt remains convinced that most jurors "see through any theatrics and emotional appeals, and try to decide the case on facts and evidence."

"The outcome of the case will have far-reaching consequences. Not only will it determine Greg Hardy's guilt or innocence, but it will have a significant influence on what further action the NFL takes, Hardy's financial future, and whether Hardy is subject to a lifetime ban from the NFL if another incident occurs."