On television, the audience usually only gets to see a criminal trial in the middle, when the exciting (or more exciting) parts are in full-swing. But most people do not really understand what it means to pick a jury, unless they have had the opportunity to serve on a jury themselves. Everyone can relate to getting the notorious jury duty notice – but what exactly are the people in suits looking for in a good juror?
The process of selecting a jury is called voir dire. It whittles down a huge jury pool to a panel of either 6 or 12 people, with alternates. In order to do this, lawyers need to understand just who that potential juror is – what are their opinions, what do they do for a living, how would this affect their attitude or biases when it comes to a criminal trial? Voir dire affords lawyers the chance to learn about the jurors, as well as build a rapport. An effective trial lawyer will use voir dire to determine whether a juror is inclined to come down in favor of a defendant or the state prosecuting the subject, and can even ask the judge to strike that juror from the pool of potential candidates.
First, most jurors are corralled into one big courtroom, where they are asked if there is any reason they should be disqualified from serving on a jury. Most of the time, these are people who have been convicted of a crime, or people who have serious obligations like caring for small children or a sick relative. These people are usually excused from having to serve on a jury. After this, many times the jury pool is broken up into smaller ones, depending on the caseload of each particular court. There, the lawyers for each side (the defense and the state) will get an opportunity to ask open-ended questions at large and individually to the group, to determine who will be the best candidates for the jury. Of course, the state will try to make the jury as sympathetic as possible to the prosecution, while the defense will try to get a jury that will be lenient on their client. This is where strikes and challenges come in.
Each attorney can object to jurors. There are two kinds of objections. First, there are peremptory challenges, where a lawyer can object without giving any sort of justification whatsoever in striking a juror. The catch is that there are a limited number of these kinds of objections, depending on your jurisdiction and how large the jury is. However, if the attorney is suspected on using these challenges based on race or gender, the other attorney can demand a hearing to ask for their reasons why they struck a juror, called a Batson challenge. Then, it is up to the other attorney (usually the prosecutor) to put forth a race neutral reason for striking the jury, at which point, the trial judge must determine whether there was discriminatory intent in striking the juror. The second kind of objection is a challenge for cause, where something in the juror’s background might prejudice them. Many times police officers or lawyers are struck for cause, as they may be overly sympathetic to the prosecution, or attempt to interpret the law in a different way. It is understandable that a defendant would not want a police officer to be on their jury if they have been charged with murdering a police officer.
Voir dire is also an opportunity for the juror to be educated on the law and the case, as well as to be prepared as to the tone. Depending on the jurisdiction, attorneys usually cannot tell the jury any facts or evidence they expect to be revealed during the trial during voir dire; however, they can talk in hypotheticals to gauge the juror’s reaction and attitude towards either the defendant or the state.
Voir dire can be a lengthy process – sometimes taking up to two or three days – but it is a crucial element to any criminal jury trial. It is one of the few times that a juror can speak directly to an attorney during a case, and it is the only time the attorney can learn about the juror and their background, including their education, job, family and political views. If you receive your jury summons in the mail, understand that you are about to be a part of one of the most fascinating and important judicial processes in the world.