Thursday, April 17, 2014

Picking a Jury

Jury selection is the first, and very possibly the most important part of a jury trial.  Prospective jurors are placed under oath and the judge and attorneys ask questions to determine if they can be fair and impartial in the trial.

This process, called voire dire (to speak the truth) seeks to eliminate potential jurors who have preconceived opinions on how the trial should end up or has prejudices (conscious or subconscious) which would prevent them from listening to the evidence and the judge’s instructions on the law.

The questions are usually pretty straightforward:  Have you ever served on a jury before?  Do you know any of the witnesses?  If so, would you be able to consider their testimony in the same manner as any other witness who may testify?  Do you have any problem serving on a jury that may last X days?  Have you been convicted of a felony?  (One juror told us, under oath, that he was not a felon.  It was only when the jury came in after a four-week trial that we found out he was a felon.  That jury verdict needed to be thrown out…)

In one criminal case I tried, the defendant was Hispanic who did not speak English.  Even today, there are people who are prejudiced against people of color, so I needed to ask if there was anyone on the jury panel who could not presume the defendant innocent simply because of his race.  One juror raised his hand, and said he could not judge a Hispanic fairly and impartially.  The juror had an Irish surname.

Naturally, I dismissed the prospective juror from the panel.  But before I did, I said, “It is really sad that a person of our Irish heritage could be prejudiced against people coming to this country to find a better life, as our ancestors were forced from their native land because of a famine.  When they reached this land, they, too were discriminated against.  Cartoons in papers depicted Irishmen as baboons.  Help wanted signs included ‘No Irish Need Apply’.  How is it that we have forgotten the injustice of ignorant prejudice and become the bigots ourselves?”

(I must admit that the real words I used at the time were far less eloquent than those above, but the sentiments were identical.)

The vase majority of jurors summoned do their best to set aside any preconceived notions of how the case should end and promise to listen to the evidence, apply the law that the judge gives and give a fair an impartial verdict.  THAT is the main reason why the American system of Justice is the best in the world!

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Next Week:  Fleeting Moments of Beauty